There’s obviously going to be a lot of nitpicking around She & Him. Every album’s subjected to scrutiny, but when a full-time actor or actress decides to showcase her songwriting chops, folks’ suspicions are usually stronger than his or her songs (right now Bruce Willis is somewhere out there eating his harmonica). If you’ve been reading the site at all lately, you know the She & Him of the band’s name are Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward. They met while covering a Richard and Linda Thompson tune “When I Get To The Border” for The Go-Getter. On Volume One Zooey handles most of the singing, though Matt does duet with her here/there (on the covers, maybe because she wrote the other tunes for solo voice). She also plays piano and banjo. On top of his fine, properly nostalgic production, Ward’s the six stringer. Other musicians showing up across the 13 tracks are the Decemberists’ Rachel Blumberg on drums and Mike Coykendall on pedal steel. It’s a well-appointed affair — no half-stepping — and the title Volume One seems to connote subsequent releases. Hmm … Is that a good or bad thing?
Zooey’s voice is sweet. It reminds us of Judee Sill. We can also see where Merge is coming from when they reference Dusty Springfield. M. Ward really uses her voice well: he found its strengths and put ‘em in a proper context, producing and arranging around her twang (rather than what Sitek did with ScarJo, where his lush layers are always sorta competing; Tinkerbell’s kinda drowning in the cough medicine). Matt has a lot more confidence in Zooeys’ voice than Sitek does in Scarlett’s but there’s good reason: there’s more there to Zooey’s voice. She has more charisma to her singing, especially in tracks like the sweet flourishing opener “Sentimental Heart,” which oddly reminds us of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You” (to get all Juno on your ass) … but with Douglas Sirk-style melodrama attached to it. She really nails that one. Or, when you hear her laugh a little at the beginning of “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?,” that’s quite a charmer. As is the Jenny Lewis/Watson Twins-style “This Is Not A Test” and the slight twang she adopts for parts of “Change Is Hard.” It makes sense that she opts to cover the Beatles (a countrified “I Should Have Known Better” complete with pedal steel and horse-hoof percussion) and the Miracles (“You Really Gotta Hold On Me”); Volume One’s a total, golden-age throwback. Like wasn’t “I Was Made For You” in Grease? No? It should have been. The song she should not have covered, though, is closer “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” That one flops.
The total flops, though, are rare. And while “You Really Gotta Hold On Me,” done as a duet with M. Ward is definitely a standout, the duets can be a bad idea — because when Matt opens his mouth, her voice pales in comparison. We had a similar reaction while listening to Zooey’s album to what we did with Johansson: Even though we like Volume One more than Anywhere I Lay My Head, we perked up whenever Matt starts singing. It makes the songs (those duets) very strong — but it makes it so clear how much charisma his voice has, which implicitly points out the lack in hers. Guess it’s sorta like Scarlett singing beside Bowie (though Bowie would probably make M. sound kinda weak, too, to be fair). Not that she can’t also sound slight on her own– the “jazzy” (please note quotes) “Take It Back” personifies Starbucks-lite.
So, in the end, putting aside the fact that Zooey is, like, so cute, the album’s pretty … but slight. While it’s fairly forgettable, though, we were pleasantly surprised by a few tracks (see: “Sentimental Heart”). If you can’t tell, we think it’s better than Scarlett’s, for those keeping score of the indie-rock-actress infiltration. Does this mean Juliette Lewis wins? Answer: No, Zooey schools her. We’re looking forward to their SXSW set and hearing how Volume One ages. (OK, so maybe we’re looking forward to seeing how it ages, too.)
Volume One is out 3/18 on Merge.