“One day you’ll be cool. Look under your bed. It’ll set you free.” – Anita Miller, Almost Famous
I fell in love with Zooey Deschanel upon seeing her portray the role from whence came the quote above. As the older sister of William Miller, the thinly veiled caricature of author Cameron Crowe, she introduces him to the world of rock and roll. I’m sure that every writer here at Treble, as well as most of you fans of music out there reading this know, these moments are real, and they do set us free. The image and impact is the same though the albums may change. For Miller, they were the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, Dylan and Cream. I have about three moments like these in my life, and I won’t bore you with them. I will surmise, however, that Zooey Deschanel, in her real life, had moments like these alternately with members of the Beatles and with various sirens of seventies AM radio. These are the touchstones behind She & Him, the collaboration with indie guitarist extraordinaire, M. Ward. Any of you out there who had seen the movie, Elf, knew that Deschanel had some pipes. In fact, the first time I saw the film, with her singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I could have sworn she was lip-synching to a ’40s period track. But as was proven by both the film, and by Volume 1, the initial offering of the pair of Deschanel and Ward, she can sing, and she can sing very well!
Actors have tried their hands at singing before, so this certainly isn’t a new thing. But for the last ten years or so, the tide had definitely turned the other way, seeing several high profile recording artists becoming bankable movie stars. But this year will not only see Deschanel’s debut, but also Scarlett Johansson’s. We have a bit to wait for the latter, but if She & Him is any indication, this is a trend worth exploring. Volume 1, it’s title suggesting there may be more where that came from, is so rooted in seventies nostalgia that you may just have to hear it through the eight-track player in a wood-paneled station wagon to get the full effect. The leadoff track sets the stage, as Zooey sings to us that she’s a `heap on the floor’ due to a recent breakup. Yes, this is one of those records, immersed in heartbreak and the pain of love. Yet, the music backing up the lyrics of woe seems paradoxically joyous. That opener, “Sentimental Heart,” one of the few songs that could be categorized as morose, actually sounds like a slowed down version of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.”
“Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” being the late Beatles era / Lennon-esque feel that carries throughout most of the album. Lennon meets up with Harrison (and maybe even Joni Mitchell) on one of the highlights of the record, “This is Not a Test,” a song challenging a girl on the failing nature of her relationship. Vocally, however, Deschanel usually channels Ms. Linda Ronstadt, especially in the more twangy tracks such as “Change is Hard” and “Got Me.” These two tracks are probably worth the price of the disc alone as she proves that the jazz standard chops she displayed in Elf was not her only niche. When she sings the repeated phrase “I should know,” you really understand her incredible ability. The pair also throw in a couple of really fun ’50s doo-wop numbers in “I Was Made for You” and the Jason Schwartzman co-written “Sweet Darlin’.” Look out, Pipettes, you’ve got some competition!
There are a couple of covers in the mix as well, with one working slightly better than the other. One is the Smokey Robinson classic “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” which, of course, the Beatles covered as well. In the hands of She & Him (and my grammar check is going to have a field day with their moniker), the tune is slowed down to an emotive crawl, really squeezing the pathos out of the lyrics, making it more of a song of longing than one of the celebration of love. The other cover is the Beatles’ “I Should’ve Known Better,” and this one is given a countrified makeover that I’ve never heard before. I’m not sure it works, but it certainly is unique.
M. Ward’s contribution to this record might go largely unsung as Deschanel is such a well-known commodity, at least in film. But Ward’s guiding musical hand deserves quite a bit of credit for pulling off this enchanting record. Fans of his (Him?) might be disappointed by his haunting vocals only appearing on two tracks, but the solid musical landscape he creates should mollify even the most hardcore followers. I was more than surprised by Deschanel’s skills, even having heard before what she was capable of. I’ll tell you, it’s more than refreshing to hear a modern vocalist pronounce her r’s in sung words like `never’ and `wonder.’ She’s got class and style, and Him’s not too shabby either.
Linda Ronstadt- Heart Like a Wheel
Richard & Linda Thompson- I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Slow Dazzle- The View From the Floor