Volume One – She & Him

Volume One

She & Him

Merge Records

2008

You may be thinking about asking me, “ryan, why are you reviewing an album that came out two years ago instead of waiting for a month or so to review their next album?  Also, why, in this metaphysical rhetorical query that I – the audience, or valued reader- supposedly is asking, did you not capitalize your own name?”  First of all, I am going to review Volume One to get ready for Volume Two which is due out March twenty-third.  So, I might as well cue you, the valued reader, in to listening to this enjoyable album.  B) Zooey Deschanel is perfect.  In every way possible.  First, look at her.  Then watch her – she’s actually a really good actress (don’t let 500 Days of Summer fool you.  I think that was the writers’ fault.).  And then, listen to her.  She has such a beautiful voice.  People who have known me for more than a week all know that I consider her a goddess.  Right under Natalie Portman.  And Thirdably, I kept my name in lower-case because that’s how it appears on this site.  It’s a style issue, that I felt, in the spur of the moment, should be kept up with. 

I first encountered She & Him while watching the engrossing Sundance Channel’s Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…  On this particular episode, Deschanel and M. Ward (the “Him” in She & Him) appeared with Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley (also Rawr!  She is amazingly talented and sexy too!  It was a very good episode.) and Jakob Dylan.  Costello provided genuinely insightful questions, and the duo responded delightfully.  They then performed “Change is Hard.”  Anyway, some history on the band.  The two met on the set of The Go-Getter, a movie I’ve never heard of, where they were asked to record a song for the end credits.  They bonded over similar tastes (referencing California pop on the Spectacle episode).  Apparently, Deschanel had recorded demos of her own songs for over a year, and Ward asked to listen.  Things came to, and they formed She & Him, recording this first album.

Musically, Volume One is very clever.  Deschanel provided most of the lyrics and most of the vocals, which she has a real knack for.  M. Ward became the mastermind behind the instrumental ideas.  I’d call Ward a musical genius, but I have to admit ignorance, for now.  Even with my highly advanced knowledge of all things rock and roll, and indie rock (I’m like an encyclopedia – if an encyclopedia was excessively conceited), I never really listened to M. Ward beforehand.  Even though he has a successful solo career, has played with the aforementioned Jenny Lewis, Bright Eyes, and My Morning Jacket.  I just recently started listening to him, so I honestly can’t say how much I like him yet.  Nonetheless, on this album, he furnishes really great arrangements. 

Some good examples are “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?,” “I Should Have Known Better,” and “Sweet Darlin’.”  The first is an uptempo track with piano and acoustic guitar chords pushing the song forward.  Also, a quirky guitar solo is thrown in leading the way to a key change.  This is my favorite song on the record, if only because of the ending.  Deschanel’s numerous melodies overlap as the instruments fade out.  The listener is treated to her saccharine voice for a few measures, and then the music jumps right back in.  It’s a trick that Ward pulls off so perfectly, if because of its succinctness.  The next song is the pair’s take on one of my favorite Beatles’ songs.  Here, they change the mood from uptempo poppiness, to a mellow countrified sound.  The musical track is complete with a lap steel guitar (which might have been played by another huge indie guy, Mike Mogis).  The last song, “Sweet Darlin’,” is another uptempo song, cowritten by Deschanel’s friend, Jason Schwartzman).  Ward really shows off his production talent on this song.  Every sound is clearly heard, with snappy drums, slide guitar, castanets, and even a string section thrown in.

As I’ve previously mentioned, She & Him were heavily influenced by California Pop.  Adding to their sound is their love of 1960’s rock, George Martin productions, and country-folk.  While none of their ideas are particularly original on Volume One, they make all of these sound-ideas into their own.  It’s an album that is steeped in the past; none of the songs come off as modern.  This could be due to Ward’s love of analogue recording devices rather than digital pieces of equipment.  However, I’m sure it’s just as important that Deschanel’s voice is so simple and melodic.

In fact, Zooey Deschanel possesses on of the sweetest singing voices currently (my belief).  She refrains from using too many vocal tricks such as vibrato (which for the few times I’ve watched American Idol, is rampant with many popular singers).  This very straightforward technique creates an unaffected aspect to her singing.  On most of the tracks, her vocals border on naivety – following the mood of her lyrics.  For example, in “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” she relates herself to a doll “just sitting on the shelf,” an obvious childlike quality.  In “Change is Hard” she sings about losing a love, singing that she wasn’t enough for him and that she did him wrong – a candid, sincere ballad on the narrator’s faults.  On Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” her unpretentious style brings a soft effect to their minimalist interpretation of the classic song.  The one time this naivety is misconstrued is on the bonus track: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  While she has a great voice which fits the song, it’s a traditional spiritual that really requires more experience from the singer for it to be taken seriously.  Not to say she doesn’t sing it well, it’s just that the idea of a negro slave singing the song with soul doesn’t quite translate with a pale indie girl.

One last thing on her vocals, she has a real penchant for harmonies.  She often provides her own backup on this album, and it’s rampant all over.  The band plays this talent up really well.

There are only a few critiques I have about Volume One, some of which I’ve already discussed (the bonus song, the lack of purely original ideas).  However, the biggest criticism I have is that some of the later songs don’t hold up to the first ones.  Which, with only thirty-sic minutes of play, kind of makes itself known.  While no songs are bad, by any means, a few bog the album down.  “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” followed by “Take it Back” slow the album down, almost creating a bored sense.  “Black Hole” is a decent song, but the lyrics (especially, “I’m alone on a bicycle for two”) are lacking in enthusiasm.  Meanwhile, “Got Me” is a forgettable track that is riding on the boundary of inane with its slow alt-country semblance.  However, there are enough really good songs on Volume One to make it enjoyable for the entire length.  These songs that are lacking, I repeat, are not bad at all – just lacking.

Even with a few missteps, Volume One is a solid initial offering from She & Him.  It never meanders, always opting to stroll through familiar territory.  And the mood fits this comfortably.  It is an album immersed in its ancestry, which relieves us from much of the same sounding music surrounding us with its modernity.  Ward and Deschanel don’t play with noise, they don’t play with many effects, they don’t play with unconventional ideas (luckily they also don’t play with clichés).  It’s a beautifully produced album, and will no doubt hold up to scrutinizing analysis, much like its influences have.  I hope that Volume Two will allow for some progression, which I’m sure it will.

Buy This Album

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