“Hey, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel made a record!” is not the kind of statement you expect to wake up to, but there it is, twee band name and all.
She & Him’s debut, Volume 1, is ostensibly an alterna-take on the classic country album – the hard and true, early-’60s kind of hillbilly record you never hear anymore. Think Patsy Cline via June Carter until the later tracks, when a foot-stomping, old-school girl-pop vibe similar to the Ronettes arises from left field. The two different hemispheres of sound cohere in a flawless and seamless symbiosis.
The duo’s influences are readily apparent and act as the album’s Rosetta stone, but it never feels like a cover album. Even the songs they do cover are arranged so uniquely under Ward’s anti–Phil Spector stewardship, and Deschanel’s voice is so striking, that it takes a moment to say “a-ha!”
“I Should Have Known Better” is proof that Beatles songs can sustain a Nashville twang and swagger as long as it’s done with some amount of grace and ingenuity. (American Idol’s never heard of such a thing.) The track highlights a playful note in Deschanel’s voice that is uncommon on the rest of the record. The pain of love’s disappointment is palpable throughout. It seems to seep right through the speakers and curl up in a ball next to you.
The first listen is a tentative one, though. The conditioned reaction is to recoil in horror at the sound of another actor trying to cross over into a musical career. Deschanel isn’t just another actor, though. Her on-screen characters are usually surrounded by music: the Simon and Garfunkel-obsessed older sister in Almost Famous; the singing salesgirl who is timid about her voice in Elf; a trombonist in All the Real Girls. She’s even scheduled to play Janis Joplin in 2010’s Gospel According to Janis. This isn’t a really good record by an actor; it’s just a really good record.