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Straight from the Sixties Comes She & Him

Observer Scene | Wednesday, March 26, 2008

You might know Zooey Deschanel from movies like “Elf” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but did you know she can sing? She can sing quite well, and together with indie folkster M. Ward, she just put out a very solid record under the name She & Him.

In this collaboration, Deschanel takes care of the lyrics and vocals, while Ward supplies pretty much everything else. He plays all the necessary instruments and produces. Through his fantastic production, he makes the work of just two people sound like a full band.

Usually, a two-person band makes pretty simple arrangements, but Ward’s production allows for some impressive layering. In songs like “Sentimental Heart,” Ward uses multiple tracks of Deschanel’s voice to create harmonies and fill out the empty spaces, and transforms the song into something that could be recorded by a five-piece girl group from the 60s.

Using multiple tracks might seem like a way to account for Deschanel’s lack of range or vocal prowess, but one listen to the 50s country throw back track “Change Is Hard” is all one needs to recognize that the girl can sing. She may not have the greatest voice in the world, or the best range, but her full-bodied and impressively expressive vocals deliver.

As you can probably tell from the last two tracks mentioned, the pair’s music is essentially trying to recapture the pop and country sounds from the 50’s and 60’s.

Instead of trying to innovate and add anything new, they work to emulate the sound produced by the female country singers and the Brill Building work of Carole King and Gerry Goffin from that time period.

Fortunately, they do it to perfection, and pop tracks like “I Was Made For You” mix fantastically with woeful country tunes like “Take It Back.” The record presents a very vintage feel while still sounding fresh.

Deschanel also provides the lyrics to all the original songs on the record. In the style of the genres the duo emulates, most of the songs are about being swept away by love or being hurt by it. In “Sentimental Heart,” she sings of “crying all night until there was nothing left.” In Black Hole, she’s “alone, on a bicycle for two.” But then in “I Was Made For You,” she sings about “waitin’ for a long, long time for a boy like you.” The innocence and charm of these simple lyrics are very disarming and fit the music so well.

There are also two covers on the album. The first is Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” Unfortunately, it’s probably the weakest song on the album. It adds nothing to the original, and is played straight the entire song through. The second is a cover of The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” which is a standout on the album. Deschanel and Ward slow it down, and allow the tune and melody a little more space to breathe. It’s a fantastic interpretation of a classic early Beatles song.

“Volume One” is a refreshing window into the simpler, more innocent songs of the past. While She & Him branched out into a few more styles and themes (a bonus track rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariots” show the promise of Deschanel’s voice in gospel music), there’s always time for that in “Volume Two.” And at just 35 minutes, the album does not overstay its welcome, but provides a brief respite for lovely escapism into the past.