ALBUM REVIEW: “Volume Two” — She & Him (Merge)

She is Zooey Deschanel; Him is M.Ward. And you might want to start thinking of She as a songwriter and singer above all.

Regardless of what Zooey Deschanel told Will Ferrell in “Elf,” she does sing. And in front of people. And very, very well, at that.

And “Volume Two,” the second and latest album by She & Him, the group fronted by Deschanel and M. Ward — a partnership formed when they collaborated on Richard & Linda Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border” for her 2007 film “The Go-Getter” — has been deservedly getting plenty of workout in my car stereo as of late. It’s an extremely well-crafted album; were it not for her other career, more people would be flat-out singing her praises as a songwriter and singer. Not one of her 11 originals here falls flat, and many of them hit some lofty peaks.

And it says volumes that this album gets a thumbs-up despite their version of one of my all-time favorite songs.

*****

She & Him (Deschanel on piano and songwriting, Ward on guitars, backed by studio musicians) have created a modern-meets-retro California sound. Not the California of one of Deschanel’s musical heroes, Brian Wilson, but a mix of the laid-back image of the late ’60s-to-early ’70s. The prevailing vibe, listening to the disc above the sound of my noisy tires on the freeways, has been that of Deschanel singing in the late afternoon at a backyard cocktail party, wearing a pair of those big ‘ol Jackie O shades and a vintage-shop sun dress.

But while there are wonderful hints of things past to be found here, at no time does the album feel like a copycat of anything you’ve heard before. This is a new sound. “Volume Two” is a near-perfect combination of sweet vocals, smart arrangements and a firm knowledge of music history.

At its best, “Volume Two” mixes orchestration with some extremely clever lyrical turns. Sometimes it’s the lyric that acts as the song’s introductory hook. “Don’t Look Back” combines a bouncy piano line with one of the great opening lines (“Orpheus melted the heart of Persephone, but I never had yours”), excellent instrumental hooks, dynamic vocals and occasional well-places guitar snares. “Home” offers another great introductory verbal (“California is a great big nation of one”) with its piano intro; overall, it offers a musical density and spacy feel — not nearly as abstract as Van Dyke Parks, but with the same late ’60s/early ’70s California vibe.

Deschanel’s voice is at its most forceful on “Over It Over Again,” where she combines her vocal and piano drive with the distant sounds of the other coast: the girl-group feel of The Shangri-La’s-meets-The Angels-meets-Blondie vocal. Add to that another great lyrical turn (“Running away from you is just like running a business”) and you have another song that would’ve been a great single in the days when singles mattered and the pop charts weren’t cluttered with crap. Her other great vocal turn here is much more subtle: the album-ending “If You Can’t Sleep,” a sweet, hymn-like lullaby that just sprinkles sweetness with a magic wand.

The rest of the originals run effortlessly through a flurry of sounds. “Lingering Still,” and its Spanish guitar and cha-cha beat, conjure Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. “Thieves,” the opening tune, mixes a density of sound and a ’60s folk -pop group delivery. “Me and You” is bare-bones acoustic guitar, sweet melody and the right accent of pedal steel, with the overall message “You’ve got to be kind to yourself.” “In the Sun” counters a jaunty piano line and a leisurely bike-ride feel with lyrics about a girl thinking of leaving her boyfriend. “Sing,” a plea to a heartbroken singer/songwriter, is “Dock of the Bay”-meets-early-’70s California cocktail party.

Deschanel also shows her adeptness in choosing cool songs to remake, but the results are mixed. On the good side, she dug deep into the vault for “Gonna Get Along Without You Now”; originally done with a big band in 1952 by Teresa Brewer, the She & Him version is based on the 1957 single by teenage sister duo Patience & Prudence. She eliminated the Chipmunk/novelty feel of that record — slowing down the tempo a bit, softening and stripping the arrangement, turning it into it an infectious hootenanny of a song.

But slowing down the tempo a little on NRBQ’s signature song, “Ridin’ in My Car,” is another story.

Al Anderson’s 1977 pop ditty about lost love is one of rock’n’roll’s all-time gems, by rock’n’roll’s greatest unsung group, and in my late adolescence, you couldn’t turn on an FM rock station in Connecticut or Massachusetts without hearing it. Here, Ward’s gentle guitar approach works well, and Deschanel brings the right amount of vocal wistfulness. But the rhythm is all wrong. A jaunty, bouncy peppy song, driven in its original form by Tommy Ardolino’s spirited, slophouse, roundhouse drumming, has been turned sludgy by a straightforward, shuffling snare rhythm; it’s like trying to dance in molasses. It’s great that younger musicians have found their way to the Q, but I’d like to see She & Him take another crack at this tune in the tempo in which it was meant to be played.

Despite that well-meaning but misguided moment, “Volume Two” is an album worth playing over and over again. More efforts like this and more people will see Deschanel for what she really is: A star singer/songwriter who happens to be a damn good actress, too.

(If you know of an album I should be aware of, or have an album you want reviewed — and it has to be available in CD format — email me at franoramaworld@gmail.com. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.)

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One Response to “ALBUM REVIEW: “Volume Two” — She & Him (Merge)”

  1. jmucci Says:

    Speaking of Brian Wilson in this review, I remember reading once that your favorite album of all time was “Pet Sounds” (my #2). Not sure if you have ever written a review of it, but I would be curious to read what you had to say on it, and why you think it’s the greatest album of all time.

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