She & Him - Volume One

Kate Goranka Whittaker 01/08/2008

Rating: 4/5

Could there possibly be a review of this defiantly retro album by She & Him without mentioning the fact that the singer/songwriter in question, Zooey Deschanel, who usually appears in films for a living? Probably not. However, comparisons to the recent musical output from Scarlett Johansson would be silly. It's tempting, just on the basis of them both being actresses dipping their toes in musical waters. However, Johansson only managed to come up with an album of cover versions - good as it was, there were many hands in the making of it - whereas Ms Deschanel is in another pond of talent entirely, having written 10 of the 12 songs by herself, and in addition to contributing her distinctive vocals, she also plays piano on most of the tracks. This is no vanity project either - she's been singing since high school and was already an avid piano and ukelele player before anyone even mentioned the words "record deal". Oh, in case you needed any further credentials, the lady comes from very talented stock - her parents are Caleb and Mary-Jo Deschanel - a director/cinematographer and actress respectively (they have both worked on the seminal TV drama series Twin Peaks (1990)), and her older sister Emily is the lead actress in US forensics drama Bones. Gosh - makes Scarlett Johansson seem like trailer trash - but enough of these foolish comparisons!

The "Him" part of the band name refers to producer M Ward, who helped her to record this album in the space of only 9 weeks, as well as playing guitar, and providing string arrangements and occasional backing vocals. They first met in 2006 to record a cover of Richard & Linda Thompson's "When I Get to The Border" for a film soundtrack (an indie flick called "The Go-Getter", fact fans!), and apparently struck up a friendship based on their mutual love of old records. So when Zooey later played him her demos, a collaboration was born, resulting in this record.
But really, Zooey could shine all by herself. Her voice is unusually distinctive, clear and sharp, but appealing - like sugar-coated lemons - with a curl of cutesy country twang around the edges. The whole album sounds like it could have been sung by a Grande Dame of Country back in the sixties, such as Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette, as well as having a very beehive and swing skirt Phil Spector girl group vibe about it; especially on the oom-dop-diddy retro overload of "I Was Made For You". Harmonizing backing vocals, aaahs, whistling, steel guitar, slide guitar and country plaintives are all over this record. Indeed, Zooey herself describes the album as "optimistic, nostalgic, country pop." - a succinctly accurate appraisal.

Zooey seems immensely likeable - I have only actually ever seen her acting in "Almost Famous" (Cameron Crowe's heartwarming autobiographical love letter to music (2000)), only her second film role and her breakthrough (her debut was in some forgettable gubbins called "Mumford") - but she hasn't been in anything really worthy of her since ("Failure to Launch", anyone??). It was a small but important part as Crowe's rebellious older sister; she was instantly appealing on screen, and on this record she sounds exactly as you'd imagine her to be in real life - charming, earnest, thoughtful, romantic, friendly and sweet. Wow! What a woman.

She's only 28 but she sings like she's seen a few heartbreaks in her time, songs of yearning love and bruised disappointment (what else is there?). About half of the dozen tracks are relentlessly cheerful and upbeat in tempo, for instance "Sweet Darlin'", a composition credited to Zooey and one J. Schwartzman, whom I must presume to be actor Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited, Marie Antoinette, Rushmore etc.), whom I believe she is currently dating (although I had to google it as I am oblivious to such gossip rag matters). The song is exceedingly chipper, but a little bit throwaway, with a near mind-numbingly repetitive chorus: "Sweet darlin', come hold me, just a little bit longer now..." over and over and ...... much more effective are lyrically introspective slow burners such as "Change is Hard", my favourite on the album - which is exceptionally well suited to Zooey's plaintive, pleading vocal, "I listened when they told me, if he burns you let him go, Change is hard, I should know...". Followed by the similarly bittersweet "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today" in which she ponders, "I somehow see what's beautiful in things that are ephemeral, I'm my only friend of mine, and love is just a piece of time, in the world...". She successfully re-jigs a Beatles cover, "I Should've Known Better", making it sound like a country music original, and remarkable for her long-held opening note on "I-i-i-i-i-i-i....." upon which I thought I was listening to Patsy Cline about to break into "I-i-i-i-i-i faaaall to pieeeeces....". It would not be out of place here.

This is a highly enjoyable album, full of melodic hooks, catchy choruses and pretty, winsome balladeering. "This is Not A Test" is instantly, ridiculously catchy - it had me singing along after only one listen - and as such is unsurprisingly the debut single. In a recent interview, Zooey admitted her penchant for all things vintage: "I love old music, old movies, screwball comedies, vintage clothes, and basically I'm an old fashioned gal." You don't say...! She & Him Volume One is Zooey all over: it is delightfully old fashioned, and a classy winner as a result. She really has nothing to fear from comparison or criticism - with this album she has proven herself an artist first and foremost, with more than one feather in her cap.