Friday, March 28, 2008

Album Review: Volume One

This review appears on North By Northwestern

It’s an indie-kid’s wet dream: Doe-eyed actress Zooey Deschanel showing off the pipes she gave the world a preview of in Elf on an entire album in collaboration with guitarist M. Ward with a grammatically incorrect group dubbed She & Him. That has to be the album pitch equivalent of the now infamous six word movie pitch for Will Ferrell’s Taladega Nights: “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver.” As with all heavily anticipated and internet-hyped indie albums, the duo’s debut Volume One is not pop perfection, but it delivers a confidant, filled out album of solid pop music.

Deschanel’s lyrics and delivery are simple and serene, and that fits her just fine. She’s not trying to cross over into the big time like Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, or Paris Hilton. She ‘s just an actress trying her turn at singing, and she makes the most of it.

Most of her movie roles have been as witty, romantic sidekicks, and the few leading turns she’s had in films like Winter Passing have all had a decidedly melancholy aspect to them. Her songs sound as though they could be on the soundtrack to a few of her films, and I mean that in the nicest way. They are short, simple, self-contained nuggets of pop melancholic romance. Tracks like “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” and “I Should Have Known Better” represent the album’s repetition of lovers who just can’t get past that one guy. You can almost see Deschanel staring at old pictures as she sings, conjuring up her memories of love as she laments loss. Even the brighter emotional moments like the 60s girl group doo-wopping of “I Was Made For You” are songs of trying to attain love, not being in it. The album’s three covers are all slowed down takes on the originals, keeping with the demure tone of the whole record.

Ward does a great job fleshing out the tracks as he always does as a producer/guitarist. Deschanel is front and center for the album, but Ward moves subtly into different moods, hitting a little country in some places, while getting a tinge of Hawaiian sound on others. His background vocals fill in at just the right places, and he really knows when to flesh out a track or just leave it as sparse as can be. The empty production of “You Really Got A Hold On Me” give the impression of the two of them on an empty stage, with one spotlight bathing the two of them in brightness, crooning away. The album almost seems effortless, with a deliberately slow tempo to it, as though the music simply flows out of Deschanel and Ward naturally.

That the album is named Volume One certainly gives off the idea that the two of them would like to continue their experiment of the actress and the troubadour, and with this accomplished first effort, that may not be such a bad idea. Deschanel proves herself to be not only competent, but entertaining and mysterious at the same time. Listening to her sing makes me want to hear her do more, wonder what else the two of them can accomplish. I’d be willing to listen to as many volumes as this newly minted duo want to send out into the world.

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