She & Him, Volume One (Merge Records, 2008)

"She" is actress Zooey Deschanel, a rising star in Hollywood currently serving as the female lead in Yes Man. "Him" is M. Ward, a multi-instrumentallist and producer from Portland, Oregon. Together, She & Him have released an album called Volume One which, according to the good people at Paste Magazine, was chosen as this year's best album.

Of the thirteen songs on Volume One, nine were written by Deschanel and one was co-written by her. I'd describe Deschanel's songwriting style as being one part Carole King, one part Patsy Cline, and several parts sixties girl groups. It's rare for established movie stars to successfully pull off a side career in music (i.e., do something that's actually good), and it's even rarer when they succeed as songwriters to the degree that Deschanel does on this album. If this were the mid-sixties she'd be a highly regarded hit maker, with charming pop songs like "This Is Not a Test," "I Was Made for You," and "Sweet Darlin'." The catch, though, is that her vocals aren't really all that strong, especially on the ballads. The album's one really good vocal performance comes, ironically, on a cover of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me."

While Volume One is generally categorized as alternative or "indie," there's not actually anything about the sound of the album that's cutting edge. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, and if you're a big fan of sixties pop music you'll probably like this album a lot. But I'm starting to notice a significant trend among indie performers to go retro, whether they're making albums like this one or the one I just reviewed by The Submarines, or engaging in the more extreme act of covering an entire album like Meet the Smithereens! did last year. This trend has some strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, some old styles still have plenty to offer, as She & Him show on this album. Many older songs are also worth preserving and bringing back to people's attention; I'll be talking about this more when I review (hopefully in a day or two) Dion's latest album. A good song is a good song, after all, regardless of how old the song or the style may be.

On the other hand, I'm a bit leery of showering too much of a reward on something that's not really original. Volume One has some fun songs, and something tells me we're going to be hearing a lot from Zooey Deschanel on multiple fronts over the next few years if not beyond. But I wouldn't call the album a revelation, either, just a nice record featuring an emerging performer with a broad range of talents.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

for the video of "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?," click here.

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