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She & Him - Volume One

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Artist: She & Him

Album: Volume One

Label: Merge

Review date: Mar. 17, 2008

The She & Him behind Volume One are actress Zooey Deschanel and Merge mainstay M. Ward. Although the two previously collaborated on a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border” (for the soundtrack of the film The Go-Getter), their first full-length marks Deschanel’s debut as a songwriter. Aside from two covers (Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Gotta Hold on Me” and The Beatles’s “You Should Have Known Better”), she writes and sings lead on every track here. Ward, meanwhile, provides arrangements, guitar, and joins Zooey for a duet on the two aforementioned covers.

Ward and Deschanel’s aim on Volume One is obvious enough: to create an album of joyful, unpretentious, and unabashedly nostalgic pop. They move between numerous points of reference, the clearest being girl-group pop (“I Was Made For You”), and Brian Wilson-inspired teenage symphonies (the end of “Sentimental Heart”). Other tracks suggest light ’70s pop (America on “This is Not a Test,” The Carpenters on “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today”) and Patsy Cline-era country (“Got Me”). But ultimately, it’s a bit pointless to search for precise influences: much like Ward’s Transistor Radio, Volume One is more concerned with evocation and homage than with outright imitation of those who inspired it.

While Volume One bears little superficial resemblance to Ward’s solo work, it doesn’t exactly render him invisible either. His guitar playing and penchant for enlisting a plethora of string instruments is in evidence here, as are his skill as a conjurer and rearranger of the music of times past. He effortlessly recasts the aforementioned Beatles tune as a piece of Hawaiian kitsch, and deftly shuttles between Motown and Nashville.

Deschanel proves herself a fine songwriter and a decent (if somewhat anonymous) lyricist. She certainly doesn’t sound like an amateur here, probably a sign of a lifetime spent in careful listening (not to mention personal trial and error – apparently she’s written a lot more than what ended up here). Her singing is a bit more problematic: Deschanel has a lovely voice and a near-perfect sense of pitch, but she’s certainly got some room to grow. Her delivery at times feels a bit stiff and forced, and she tends to opt for all-out belting at times when restraint would be in order. In short, she’s trying too hard. However, there are moments on Volume One that point to her increasing ability as a vocalist (for a comparison, listen to that old Thompsons’ cover).

Slight doubts about whether or not Zooey Deschanel is the best person to be singing these songs aside, Volume One is pretty much spot-on. Ward and Deschanel have decisively succeeded in their ambition to create an eminently listenable pop album that pays homage to their musical heroes, and have delivered a near-irreproachable set of songs. While they never quite reach the heights of pop ecstasy (with the possible exception of “This is Not a Test”), they have no trouble staying aloft for the 35-minute running time of Volume One.

By Michael Cramer

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