She & Him
When celebrities get the bug up their ass to try their hand at releasing music, I usually stay as far from the result as possible. Every once in a while, some shred of genius shines through, but for every Eddie Murphy singing "Party All the Time," there are a thousand more Billy Bob Thortons and Bruce Willis, butchering the shit out of the blues. When Scarlett Johansson released Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album of Tom Waits covers, I didn't hold out much hope, and rightfully so. The album was flat and lacked everything about Waits' songs that made them so wonderful to begin with (like Tom Waits). However, Zooey Deschanel is a different story altogether, and this year's collaboration with Saddle Creek standard, M. Ward, comes in half-way through my top albums of the year at number six.
The first time I heard Deschanel sing was in the 2003 Christmas comedy, Elf, and I had to consult Wikipedia to see if it was really her voice coming through my speakers, so beautiful was the sound. So when I heard she'd be putting out an album with one of my favorite modern balladeers, I kept my ears open for the release date and snatched it up as soon as it made it to the radio station where I worked. And disappointed, I was not. The thirteen songs of Volume One make me hope there will be a Volume Two (which, reportedly, there will be--it's in production as we speak), and excited for any other consequent work Deschanel decides to lend her vocal cords to. But we're talking about this one here, and I digress.
The thirteen songs here are very much in the vein of other indie songstresses like Cat Power, Feist, and most of all, Jenny Lewis. This album is country to the core, with just a hint of 1950s sock hop-pop, but not the kind of glossy pop-country that Faith Hill is singing on CMT. This is Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn's country, the kind made to be sung into a big silver bullet mic and played out of grandpappy's old AM radio. The best part about She & Him's brand of modern indie-country is the honesty and fun of it; where Jenny Lewis tries to make an ironic statement with hers, playing the cliches of the genre to her, admittedly, clever advantage, Zooey and Matt seem to really love what they're playing. I've talked mostly about Zooey's contribution to the album thus far, but it is her voice that is the star of the show. However, Ward and the backing band (including Saddle Creek brainchild Mike Mogis and The Decemberists' Rachel Blumberg), deserve their share of time in the limelight. Without them, as beautiful as Deschanel's voice is on record, it would have just been a voice on record. The beautiful sounds emanating from behind her are the work of these fine ladies and gents: a perfect, delicate sprinkling of strings over plinking pianos and mellow guitars. Even the more upbeat songs like the doo-woppy "I Was Made for You" feels light and airy; but nothing can compare to the album's opening, "Sentimental Heart."
I love the next two songs on the album, "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" and "This Is Not a Test," possibly even more than the album opener, but it is the nakedness of Deschanel's voice and simple perfection of the music that builds slowly behind it that makes it such a brilliant first song. In the first two bars, you know exactly what you're in for through the course of the album, and you couldn't be more excited to listen the whole way through. I wasn't even listening to full songs the first few times I turned the album on--I just wanted to see everything Zooey and Matt were going to give me, and I'd skip all around, listening to pieces here and there. It's probably not a good way to get into an album (and not my typical way at all), but it is a testament to just how good the entirety of Volume One is. It's not a single, followed by some half-assed schlock, just to sell a record on the back of a celebrity. It's true, beautiful music: another one like Jim Noir's number seven pop masterpiece that everyone can listen to. Even your grandma will like this one. And that's saying something.
She & Him - Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?