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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

She & Him: "Volume One"

Like most people, the first time that I had my suspicions about actress Zooey Deschanel being a talented vocalist came from that scene in Elf where she sings in the shower as Will Ferrell's character listens. Volume One is not a collection of Christmas Carrols, and Will Ferrell is not the "Him" mentioned in the band - that title goes to the somewhat reputable, M. Ward. Unsurprisingly, the "Him" is pretty deemphasized on the album, letting Zooey shine as a vocalist and a songwriter. The result is a surprisingly solid, moderately impressive debut from a woman that proves that she's more than just a dumb crossover act.

Most of Volume One is filled with songs that throwback to classic pop and country sounds, and all of them are at least partially written by Deschanel, herself. "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today" just makes me think of Zooey singing this song in a long dress through one of those old-timey radio microphones. Sweeping strings and subtle guitars emphasize the right moments, and carefree whistles really add a sense of playfulness that make the song feel more authentic. "Change Is Hard" conveys more of a classic country picture, like the obligatory scene in every music biopic where the artist plays in a radio studio over the air for the first time as stunned personnel look on in awe. Deschanel's lyrics are often a bit simplistic, but Ward, as producer, is able to utilize them in ways that mask their mediocrity.

That's never more apparent than on the album's standout track "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" Zooey sings, "Why do you let me stay here all by myself? Why don't you come and play here? I'm just sitting on the shelf." First off, rhyming "self" with "shelf" is one of the easiest and most-overused schemes in songwriting. It rarely makes any sense, as is the case here. I mean, who actually sits on a shelf? Small gripe, I know, but the point is that the lyric - which is pretty pivotal in the song - is barely a bother because the song itself is so fun and captivating. Ward's production, filled with dancing pianos, wonderfully-used guitars, and some of the best background vocals I've heard in ages, manages to wipe away any blemish that Zooey might have brought on herself.

But Volume One is never an album that tries to be overly complicated or impressive. As a side project for both artists, it more or less feels like they just set out to had fun. That feeling is conveyed pretty often too. Album opener, "Sentimental Heart" is just begging for you to add your own vocals, and "I Was Made For You" doesn't even come close to being a meaningful or memorable song. It's simply a way for the two musicians to have fun. Fans of Ward's vocal work may be a bit disappointed with the album, as this is really Zooey's chance to shine, but there are a few moments here and there (like on "You Really Gotta Hold On Me") where he peeks his head above the water and makes his presence clearly known.

Sadly, as I hinted above, Zooey's first musical endeavor is not near as quirky or interesting as the characters she often plays in the movies. There seems to be this trend in the indie music world for female musicians to pay tribute to , or imitate the classic artists who influenced them. Like Jenny Lewis' debut solo LP, Volume One isn't going to sound very original or inspired and as a result it isn't all that memorable either. Let's be honest, folks are going to pick up this album because it's Zooey Deschanel and they may even give it some solid spins for a few weeks, but it's lack of originality might just serve as it's downfall. Still, Zooey's voice is just as charming as ever, and her personality manages to seep its way into every song on Volume One. That alone is enough reason for me to give it a solid recommendation. Needless to say, if you found yourself falling in love with that scene in Elf, She & Him might just be worth checking out.

Key Tracks:
1. "Sentimental Heart"
2. "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"
3. "This Is Not a Test"
4. "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today"
5. "Black Hole"

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