It started with an inspired bit of musical matchmaking. In 2006, indie darling singer-songwriter M. Ward wrote the score for The Go-Getter, a road movie (set for release this June) starring, among others, indie darling actress Zooey Deschanel. The Go-Getter‘s director, Martin Hynes, suggested that Deschanel and Ward cover Richard and Linda Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border” for the end credits of the film. Deschanel had already showed her vocal chops as part of her cabaret act If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies, and more famously by singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” alongside Will Ferrell in Elf. Ward is the guitarist, songwriter, and old-timey radio devotee who, on his four previous albums, has modernized the kind of country blues and jazz that sounds best coming out of an AM radio on your back porch on a muggy summer night. The two performers share a particular kind of throaty vocal timbre that sounds as if their voices might also have been channeled through that AM radio, or even through an old phonograph. While recording the track for the film, they discovered that they shared a similarly nostalgic musical sensibility overall, and soon the two were in the studio together recording songs that Deschanel had written in her spare time.
She and Him is the name the duo chose for their project, and Volume One is the deeply nostalgic fruit of their time in the studio. Deschanel and Ward have set out to create an homage to easy listening, country, and beach vibes extending from the 1940s to the early 1970s. It’s fitting that an actress, in her first venture into songwriting, would play chameleon, trying on one songstress role after another. Here, she’s Linda Ronstadt, as on the steel guitar-laced “Change is Hard”; there, she’s standing by her man as Tammy Wynette on the country dance hall swinger “Got Me”. Here, she’s Betty Grable crooning on “Take It Back”; there, she’s the Ronettes (or any other of a number of Phil Spector-produced groups), her voice looped over itself on tracks like “Sweet Darlin'” to produce a one-woman girl group.
Ward and the band he’s assembled for the project (including multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, drummer Rachel Blumberg, and violinist Tom Hagerman) take the cues, building the sonic worlds around the roles Deschanel invokes. The musicians add airy strings, slide guitar, banjo, plenty of rolling electric guitar and piano plunking, tambourine, and whistles to layer around Deschanel’s brassy singing voice, and Deschanel herself contributes her ukulele skills to a few of the tracks. Even when Deschanel is singing of heartbreak and rain, the music is warm and sunny.
It’s all great fun, but the problem with spending so much time flitting from one role to another is that it seems to prevent Deschanel from finding her own voice, and together the band rarely transcends the cloak of their influences. Too many of the songs are like photocopies, with some of the fidelity lost in the reproduction. The energy lost in the transfer is felt most on the covers, especially on a leaden rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. They fare better on a Beatles-via-a-beach-luau cover of “I Should Have Known Better”, but even that track, like many of Deschanel’s originals, lack that certain spark required to lift the tunes beyond mere pastiche. The closest they come to truly sounding simultaneously modern and out of time is on the up-beat “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?”, which jolts energy into Deschanel’s girl group choruses with rollicking guitar and piano lines and some thoroughly contemporary indie rock drumming.
But it’s easy to forget, given Deschanel’s profile as a well-respected, creative, and successful actress, that these songs are the work of a debut musician. It’s reasonable to suspect that if Ward and Deschanel decide ever to produce a “Volume Two,” and if Deschanel continues to spend her free time tinkering with her songwriting, that she could eventually find her voice and build on her influences, rather than just imitating them. In the meantime, any listener looking to spend a reverb-drenched summer on the beach revisiting the golden age of AM radio could do far worse than spending the season with She and Him.