Review: She & Him’s “Volume One”

Mar 19, 2008 5:14pm

Actress Zooey Deschanel is known for roles in movies like “Almost Famous” and “Elf.”  Indie singer-songwriter M. Ward is known for laid back, back-porch song-stylings.  Put them together, you have their new project, “She & Him.” I know what you are thinking.  “Oh great! Another vanity project from someone in Hollywood aiming to also have a singing career!”  Wrong!  Ward’s presence alone on this record should quiet some of the naysayers, since he wields a lot of hipster-cred.  Not only that, 10 out of 13 tracks are originals, with Deschanel writing 9 tracks and co-writing the 10th.  She’s no slouch.  She can craft a great hook with the best of them.  Plus, as a singer, she is a slightly known commodity given some of her film work.  This isn’t a fame-hungry, transparent and shallow money-grab.  This is a satisfying record that obviously was made for no other reason than the love of music.  Those expecting full-on duets between Deschanel and Ward will be disappointed.  Ward’s vocal contributions are limited.  This is Zooey Deschanel’s show.  The songs here are strikingly retro.  If they don’t sound like Brill Building girl-group gold, they have a backwoods, old-time country feel.  Deschanel’s voice is distinctive and suits her material well.  Opener “Sentimental Heart” sets the early sixties as an obvious touchstone.  Her melodies are full; her lyrics are timeless odes to love.  “What can you do with a sentimental heart?” she asks, and with the strike of a drum, four or five Zooeys sing the song out in “aaaaah, ahhhhh” style. “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” shows that Deschanel must have studied the songs of Goffin and King.  There is something about her delivery that recalls Little Eva’s version of the “Loco-Motion,” at least until the slightly countrified guitar-solo comes in.  “This Is Not a Test” is a little more country, as if Bobbie Gentry or Tammy Wynette got mixed in with the girl-group influences.  There may be a little Lesley Gore in the mix as well.  In any case, Deschanel gives a strong performance.  The mouth-noise vocal solo is a unique touch.  “Change Is Hard” takes us further into country ballad territory, but still the early sixties vocal pop quality bubbles to the surface.  Her voice is a naturally bold, booming instrument when it gets unleashed.  “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” would’ve been a hit in 1962, whistling solo and all.  Ward’s string arrangement to make the track slightly bigger and more elegant. “Take It Back” mixes a jazzy vocal delivery with some country-filtered touches.  It’s like something you’d hear sung just before last call.  “I Was Made For You” is the kind of song the Ronettes and the Shirelles used to specialize in.  It’s nice to hear this emulated so well, especially since Deschanel is so young and an excellent songwriter.  Next is the album’s first cover.  Deschanel slows down and gives an incandescent treatment to the Smokey Robinson classic, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.”  The song has been done so many times by so many people, but this version gives it a relaxed vibe.  Think about Mama Cass singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and you’ve got the feeling.  “Black Hole” is another nicely executed, classic country-infused number. Ward’s guitar solo sounds particularly murky.  On “Got Me,” Patsy Cline’s influence really shows.  It’s a sad number with sliding, weepy guitars, but Deschanel is up to the task. This will win her some fans. Next is perhaps the album’s only ill-advised move, a country-infused version of the Beatles’ classic “I Should Have Known Better.”  Beatles music is hard to mess up, but it is also sacred to many, so this version may not go down well with some listeners.  Still, it’s a nice attempt.  Next comes the one song Deschanel co-wrote.  Her writing partner is another actor and musician, former Phantom Planet drummer and current Coconut Records principal, Jason Schwartzman.    The track is “Sweet Darlin’” and it acts as a summary of all of the album’s strengths.  For this reason, it may be the most essential track on the album.  The record closes with a wonderfully sentimental, unlisted version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  If this doesn’t prove Deschanel’s worthiness to the skeptics, I don’t know what will.  Some people you just can’t please.  With this project, Deschanel and Ward prove a lot can still be done with some good old-fashioned musical ingenuity and talent.  I’m crossing my fingers and eagerly hoping that they will release a second volume.  This is a benchmark for celebrity-driven records!

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