Indie film darling Zooey Deschanel goes indie-country thanks to the ever-reliable M. Ward. Actors or actresses trying their hand at music has a long and inglorious history, from Jared Leto in Thirty Seconds To Mars to Don Johnson’s 1985 ‘hit’ “Heartbeat”. Even when they collaborate with others, the odds aren’t good – see Dogstar and their bassist, Keanu Reeves. But Deschanel has the pipes – and the partner – to pull off a Jack Black/Tenacious D-level surprise as ‘She & Him’ on Volume One.
That singer/songwriter M. Ward makes a good music buddy is in no doubt: he contributed to Bright Eyes’ Cassadega (QRO review) last year, and produced Rabbit Fur Coat, the solo debut from Rilo Kiley’s singer (and former child actor herself) Jenny Lewis the year before that. She & Him is probably the most full-fledged equal pairing Ward has done, as he both produces and plays guitar, while Deschanel provides vocals, piano, and the odd banjo. Volume One definitely tends towards the stripped-down country female singer of Rabbit, but higher and less grand, more old school country-time.
Deschanel and Ward start the record with the anthemistic folk-pop of “Sentimental Heart”, nice, but it veers a little prog in its folk. Stronger is the subsequent “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?”, Volume One’s first single, some knowing country-folk-fun, with great upbeat blues guitar. “This Is Not a Test” and “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” both feel somewhat reminiscent of Lewis’ solo album, but “Test” sets itself apart with a catchy group strum, while “Today” has a laid-back, world-wise sadness mixed in with an old-timey ‘sunshine amid the raindrops’ whistle.
Between those two comes “Change Is Hard”, Volume One’s first real ‘backwoods’ number. Deschanel’s heartbroken country croon on “Change” and middle track “Take It Back” wouldn’t have been out of place in Nashville thirty, forty years ago; it’s impressive how such a young actress can sound like such an old soul. A more upbeat, but still old-time, country charm comes out later on the endearing “Black Hole”, while Deschanel plays like a sixties girl-group on “I Was Made For You”. Sometimes, Volume One can get a little too anachronistic, and can lose some oomph, such as on the somewhat lame “Got Me”. But then there’s a piece like the penultimate “Sweet Darlin’”, whose country-press adds some much needed vitality to the record.
She & Him go back in time in another way with Volume One’s three covers. Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Gotta Hold on Me” comes out as a stripped country-time piece, while their cover of The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” gives some winning twang. Meanwhile, finisher “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is particularly well done, taking the traditional spiritual and retaining the emotion, while not being a rehash.
That Zooey Deschanel went into acting isn’t a surprise, considering her family: her parents are Academy Award-nominated cinematographer and director Caleb Deschanel (The Natural, The Passion of the Christ) and actress Mary Jo Deschanel (The Right Stuff, Twin Peaks), and her sister Emily is the star of FOX’s Bones. But, while she has been displaying her voice more and more on camera, as her parts have gotten larger (starting in 2003 with her first big studio lead, in Will Ferrell’s Elf), it’s still a shock that she could leapfrog ahead so quickly, even with M. Ward riding shotgun. With She & Him’s Volume One, Deschanel is finally in something where one wants to see a sequel.