Smile Politely

Album Review: She & Him, Volume One

There is always a certain amount of justifiable skepticism involved when approaching a record performed by an actor or actress. Sure, some of these folks are probably more extensively (and arguably better) trained than a good number of our favorite musicians, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We don’t want to hear a hundred records per year by classically trained musicians. We want music that’s unbridled, that seems to come naturally to the performer, that’s off-kilter enough to question training in the first place. We don’t want a publicity stunt. And though I adore both Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, the duo behind the moniker She & Him, I approached Volume One with a skepticism similar to that with which I’d approach any of the above performers.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to dispel this skepticism: perhaps its Deschanel’s voice that does it, a mid-ground between the ecstatic youth of a girl group and sultriness of a jazz singer, or perhaps it’s M. Ward’s signature musical atmosphere that’s somehow timeless. It’s, of course, the functional combination of these things that allows Volume One to achieve its lovably vintage sound: Deschanel channels Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt while Ward conjures the Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach. They send it through a Phil Spector filter and suddenly you have a record that recalls the joyful earnestness of 1950s country music and the psychedelic tendencies of the early 1960s. As a result, Volume One is traditionally American in the strangest of ways. The combination of covers and originals showcase this duo’s ability to cover some of these songs successfully (see “You Really Got a Hold On Me”), but more remarkable is the ability of the original tracks to fit right in, creating a cohesive and brief set of songs (13 songs run just over 36 minutes) that pulls us in and, at once, plants excitement for the implied prospect of Volume Two.

Though it might seem like a doomed musical (and otherwise) romance to have begun with a collaborative cover of a Richard and Linda Thompson song (“When I Get To The Border” for Martin Hynes’s film The Go-Getter), Volume One is nonetheless stunning and addictive — the product of two extremely charming individuals who prove that sometimes, when you put good things together, you get a wonderful result. You might leave the record wondering why you didn’t simply go listen to Martha and the Vandellas, or The Ronettes, or the aforementioned Patsy Cline — these are viable questions. But Volume One is so lovable it’s hard to fault She & Him for being derivative, and at the end of the day it’s difficult to imagine this duo intended anything otherwise, for better or worse.

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