on April 17, 2008
Zooey Deschanel is definitely a child of California's better nature. On her and M. Ward's first record, she harks back to the golden era of the Golden State, somewhere between Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Heart Like a Wheel, when singer-songwriters from all corners of the US, Canada, and Britain were all in Cali making laid-back, radio-friendly records with a country bent. From the first listen, it's clear how steeped she is in her parents' record collection. (They were both active in Hollywood during that time, so I'm assuming it's their influence. NB - Her father Caleb did the cinematography for A Woman Under the Influence. +1000 Cali points.)
OK, so that might not be everyone's cup of tea. I've seen 1-star reviews on here deriding this record as pedestrian fluff, and fair game, I suppose. A lot of great records are pedestrian fluff by that reckoning. Carole King's Tapestry, for instance, divides a lot of music lovers. Is a record "Easy Listening" just because it's easy to listen to? Some people prefer mutton to lamb because they like to have something to chew on, and who am I to tell them that's wrong?
It's really about what you grew up with. Put on Simon & Garfunkel - Greatest Hits in a room full of people and you'll immediately separate the teary-eyed from the disinterested. That's the same kind of reaction this record seems to be generating. Maybe some people didn't really grow up with music, and their only touchstones are the Postal Service and the Shins, and so they're disappointed that this record doesn't strike any chords with them. But for those who love Gram Parsons, Loretta Lynn, Diana Ross, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and - oh, let's say the Shangri-Las - then this record is sure to feel warm and familiar.
Part of that is the "sound". Nice touches abound, including choice backing vocals, strings, pedal steel, pianos, etc., but M. Ward's production thankfully doesn't sex it up too much, instead faithfully showcasing the lovely voice of Ms. Deschanel. She sings about as pretty as she looks (and about as smart as she talks), which will be obvious to anyone who has seen Elf or, more recently, her movie-stealing minor turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Her songwriting is also remarkable, partly because it's surprisingly good and partly because it's so very anachronistic. It sounds like she went around collecting songs with a time machine.
A few choice covers polish it off. "You Really Got a Hold On Me" carries on the very California tradition of covering or writing for soul musicians, as per Janis Joplin, Carole King, the Flying Burrito Bros, though it's mostly done in the same vein as M. Ward's weeping-willow cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance". A lilting luau rendiditon of the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" would feel right at home on Ry Cooder's Chicken Skin Music. She curiously closes the record with the Negro spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", a fairly innocuous choice which puts the record to bed.
Overall, this record is just an unexpected treat for fans of Ms. Deschanel. As for the criticism that's going around, like that her stage presence isn't great in youtube videos of her first ever live performances of her own songs, it seems a bit harsh. The "pedestrian fluff" argument also seems a bit off the mark, since to me that would mean doing the kind of Michelle Branch-style acoustic rock that most females with guitars seem doomed to play. On the contrary, Volume One is a smart, disarming record that manages to be sweet without being precious, smart without being self-conscious, and retro without oversimplifying or resorting to gimmicks. 5 stars sounds about right.
on May 2, 2008
I agree, it's not exactly re-inventing the wheel but Volume One from She & Him is a solidly enjoyable listen. Zooey Deschanel channels Petula Clark while M. Ward duly fills in the 60s blanks. What's not to like? The production is lovingly detailed, creating cozy spaces for the listener to relax. The opening track, "Sentimental Heart", is a good example. Try listening to it on headphones and you can enjoy the dueling piano and staccato violin that build up to the bright sunshine of the outro. "I Was Made For You" is another highlight, though not wholly original. If you've cruised by an oldies radio station, you'll swear that the drum, guitar riff, and backing vocals have been nicked from somewhere else and you're probably right. But come on, look me in the eye and tell me it doesn't rock, motherf%#!
There are a few covers scattered here and there but Deschanel gets full songwriting credit for the bulk of the songs, which is quite impressive. The songs are thoughtfully constructed, the melodies strong, and the lyrics heartfelt. The only negatives are that Deschanel's vocal range is limited (or perhaps not on display) and she has a goes overboard on belting out certain syllables. Still though, I think pretty much any musician would be envious of Deschanel's singing and songwriting talent.
Lastly, it's nice to see Hollywood types crossing over to the music realm in a non-painful manner (for once). I mean, sweet merciful Allah on a cross! What on earth were you thinking Scarlett Johansson?
P.S. To the reviewer who commented that the vocals sound like she's singing into a toilet: it's called plate reverb.
on April 28, 2008
Let's stop talking about who she is, and let's focus on how she does. Ms. Deschanel does not have a strong voice, but it is sincere and sweet. I've read reviews of their shows, and she can be nervous at the start--likely because she doesn't project that well, but also because these songs are very dear to her. There is no irony here, nothing sardonic--no hiding behind the cool pose. She puts it all out there, as best she can, and it brings back the California/country AM radio of the 1970s. It's very likable, if not too profound or ambitious.
I agree with the reviewer who said this record requires a few listens before its charms open up -- it's a subtle record, but there is a lot going on beneath the surface.
Zooey is quite clearly a talented singer and songwriter. Anyone who heard her sing "Baby It's Cold Outside" from Elf, or the songs she sang for the soundtrack to "Winter Passing," knows she has the voice.
On this record, she cuts a number of absolutely charming, quirky tunes, but ones that require some active listening to appreciate. M. Ward provides deft, responsive backup and arrangements.
My primary gripe here is with the production -- for some reason the producers put Zooey's voice a bit too far back in the mix, and it on occasion can sound a bit thin -- this is in contrast to the full-bodied voice we heard on Elf.
Next time, get a production who can add some fullness to the production all-around, but for a first record this one is a winner.
Zooey, you have my "Sentimental Heart" without question.
on July 13, 2010
There was another reviewer who nailed it, she sounds like she's singing to a metronome. You can almost keep time with the seconds ticking by as she sings...tick tock tick tock...
I thought her singing in Elf was excellent but this is just not the same Zooey Dechanel. She's hesitant, distant and afraid to dive in. She's really holding back. It's a shame because she can do much better. Her voice just doesn't fit with these songs. Her best efforts will be in a Norah Jones vein singing sultry torch songs. ZD's rendition of "Baby It's Cold Outside" shows what she can do when she's motivated. She just doesn't sound motivated here. She sounds scared.
Too bad. But I'm sure time and experience will overcome a lot of that. Others loved Volume One. For me it was a swing-and-a-miss. I'm also not a big fan of her song writing and that doesn't help either.
on March 18, 2008
Like most people, the first time that I had my suspicions about actress Zooey Deschanel being a talented vocalist came from that scene in Elf where she sings in the shower as Will Ferrell's character listens. Volume One is not a collection of Christmas Carrols, and Will Ferrell is not the "Him" mentioned in the band - that title goes to the somewhat reputable, M. Ward. Unsurprisingly, the "Him" is pretty deemphasized on the album, letting Zooey shine as a vocalist and a songwriter. The result is a surprisingly solid, moderately impressive debut from a woman that proves that she's more than just a dumb crossover act.
Most of Volume One is filled with songs that throwback to classic pop and country sounds, and all of them are at least partially written by Deschanel, herself. "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today" just makes me think of Zooey singing this song in a long dress through one of those old-timey radio microphones. Sweeping strings and subtle guitars emphasize the right moments, and carefree whistles really add a sense of playfulness that make the song feel more authentic. "Change Is Hard" conveys more of a classic country picture, like the obligatory scene in every music biopic where the artist plays in a radio studio over the air for the first time as stunned personnel look on in awe. Deschanel's lyrics are often a bit simplistic, but Ward, as producer, is able to utilize them in ways that mask their mediocrity.
That's never more apparent than on the album's standout track "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" Zooey sings, "Why do you let me stay here all by myself? Why don't you come and play here? I'm just sitting on the shelf." First off, rhyming "self" with "shelf" is one of the easiest and most-overused schemes in songwriting. It rarely makes any sense, as is the case here. I mean, who actually sits on a shelf? Small gripe, I know, but the point is that the lyric - which is pretty pivotal in the song - is barely a bother because the song itself is so fun and captivating. Ward's production, filled with dancing pianos, wonderfully-used guitars, and some of the best background vocals I've heard in ages, manages to wipe away any blemish that Zooey might have brought on herself.
But Volume One is never an album that tries to be overly complicated or impressive. As a side project for both artists, it more or less feels like they just set out to had fun. That feeling is conveyed pretty often too. Album opener, "Sentimental Heart" is just begging for you to add your own vocals, and "I Was Made For You" doesn't even come close to being a meaningful or memorable song. It's simply a way for the two musicians to have fun. Fans of Ward's vocal work may be a bit disappointed with the album, as this is really Zooey's chance to shine, but there are a few moments here and there (like on "You Really Gotta Hold On Me") where he peeks his head above the water and makes his presence clearly known.
Sadly, as I hinted above, Zooey's first musical endeavor is not near as quirky or interesting as the characters she often plays in the movies. There seems to be this trend in the indie music world for female musicians to pay tribute to , or imitate the classic artists who influenced them. Like Jenny Lewis' debut solo LP, Volume One isn't going to sound very original or inspired and as a result it isn't all that memorable either. Let's be honest, folks are going to pick up this album because it's Zooey Deschanel and they may even give it some solid spins for a few weeks, but it's lack of originality might just serve as it's downfall. Still, Zooey's voice is just as charming as ever, and her personality manages to seep its way into every song on Volume One. That alone is enough reason for me to give it a solid recommendation. Needless to say, if you found yourself falling in love with that scene in Elf, She & Him might just be worth checking out.
1. "Sentimental Heart"
2. "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"
3. "This Is Not a Test"
4. "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today"
5. "Black Hole"
7 out of 10 Stars
on March 19, 2008
While I'll admit to being a Zooey fan previous to this release, I resigned myself to having very low expectations for this album (if any expectations at all). It wasn't until I heard "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here" a few months ago that I felt the glimmer of hope.
The album is not perfect musically, lyrically or performance wise - but I think this ends up working for the better in the end. As mentioned in the title of this review, the thing just drips with charm. The overall vibe is retro in a very mid 1950s to early 1960s girl band way - equal and opposite to that of Amy Winehouse. Where Winehouse's songs were dark tales about co-dependency and drug abuse, Zooey's songs are lite songs about loving a boy, hurting a boy or being hurt by a boy.
Simple and straight forward.
I gave the disc 4 stars because (as we've already witnessed) it won't appeal to everyone - and it really shouldn't. It's pop-nostalgia at its most blatant, and I would argue at its best.
This listener is looking forward to a possible volume 2.
on October 3, 2008
Strange headline, eh? Well, though my favorite artists are Springsteen, The Kinks, and The Rainmakers, I can't get She & Him "Volume One" out of my CD player. It's the first CD since Springsteen's "Born to Run" where I readily liked every song on it -- consider that a high compliment.
I've been entranced by the inventive and very tuneful melodies of the songs She wrote. It took a few listenings, but "Change Is Hard" has emerged by my favorite and most unforgettable song. The tune is just plain very inventive and ultimately captivating. That's not to denigrate the other songs. "I Was Made for You" is a rollicking old time "girl-group" tune. Frankly they're all a joy -- this CD really reminds me of the inventiveness and adventuresomeness of early Linda Ronstadt, post Stone Poneys. And her take on "You Really Got a Hold on Me" is smoking (the live versions on YouTube are kind of the "hot" variety).
All in all, a sheer joy of memorable and inventive tunes with lyrics that don't insult your intelligence. Not for everybody's taste, but certainly able to appeal to a broad spectrum of musical tastes.
on April 11, 2008
I can't think of any better word to describe my overall feeling after listening to this a few times... disappointed.
Zooey's voice has haunting quality, this bittersweet painfulness that can easily pull at your heart strings. Yet, for reasons not clear to me the production wasn't done in a way to get the best out of her vocally. In some passages it feels very forced, like she's reading off a lyric sheet in front of her, yet somtimes 10 seconds later in the same song she'll reach a passage where you can tell her heart is in it, it's note perfect, and it starts stirring that emotion inside you.
For example on "Take it Back". The first line, the word "It" wavers and is clearly flat, and not in a good slidey jazzy way, just seems like no one cared to get her to do this line over. yet a few seconds later she's deep in note perfect soulful emotion. I don't understand why they wouldn't take the few extra minutes to capture that magic all over the record. Unfortunately, when Zooey isn't there emotionally with her voice, is sounds strained and is distracting. I KNOW she is capable of a much much better vocal performance. In the brilliantly performed passages, there's nothing like it, so the proof is right there for you to hear.
Song-wise, the best songs for her are the ones she's written. I can do without the Beatles cover. It isn't very good. Beatles covers are precarious ground to cover in my opinion. If you aren't going to do something really really great with it, don't do it. The songs are close to as brilliantly written, performed, arranged as they are going to be on the Beatles' recordings. The absolutely high point for her vocally is the unlisted recording of what sounds like her in a noisy room singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. These classic folk songs are where she shines, and a lot of this record sounds contrived. A lot of Be My Baby-ish attempts are made, and though they sound pretty authentic, I just don't think this is where her voice shines. It shows limitations instead of showcasing her natural abilities.
In any case, I'm still listening. It's definitely fun, I just can't get thru it without being annoyed by the fact that I KNOW if a little more work was done in the studio she could have nailed it beginning note to last.
Keep singing Zooey. We like it. That slow croony Kline/Clooney/Holiday vibe is where you shine. We're thankful to have another great singer in this vein. Make us cry. You can do it.
on November 1, 2011
It is refreshing to hear some modern pop music where the artist actually "sings" and doesn't sound like someone with bad constipation, a woman in painful childbirth or a cat that just had it's tail stepped on.
Being 50 years old I tend to listen to more classical types of music from the likes of Led Zeppelin and Ludwig van Beethoven, Blondie and Brahms. The music of She & Him is refreshing and wholesome and a pleaure to listen to. If you like the screeching banshees like Gaga, Beyonce, Fergie, Katy Perry and the long list of "pop-tarts", you probably won't like this more civilized form of music.