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Years ago I saw a movie starring an actress I adore. The movie was "Elf" and the actress in question was Zooey Deschanel, someone who I think can do no wrong, ever. Anyway, she sang in the movie and I remember thinking "my what a lovely voice she has, if she ever releases a record, I would definitely go out of my way to purchase it" or something equally as eloquent. Well fast forward a few years later and what does she do? She does exactly that. Now I am in all honesty sceptical of actresses trying their hands at music careers, I mean it's so contrived. Look at Scarlett Johansson - she released an album consisting of Tom Waits covers and I hope I'm not alone in thinking that venture fell flat. I'm not a fan of Johansson so I wasn't particularly bothered to see her succeed, though in Deschanel's case, I wanted for her to succeed, very badly. But does she? Or is this just another release by an actress that can be chucked in the bargain bin along with the likes of Lindsay Lohan's "Rumours"?
Right off the bat I must admit I am completely and utterly enamoured with Miss Deschanel. Everything about her, her movies, her style, her hair (haha) and do not even get me started on that voice. It can only be described as delectable. Think Carly Simon meets Feist. I could listen to her sing all day, and judging by the amount of plays this album has clocked up on my iTunes I clearly do. Anyway Deschanel could have gone down the route of many actresses before her and carved out a niche which might have helped her shift records by the bucket load, but instead collaborated with the talented not to mention credible M. Ward.
The story of how this collaboration came about is quite a sweet one. Before Deschanel had even considered releasing a record, she was teamed up with Ward to record a song for the end credits of the movie "The Go Getter", after which they formed a friendship. Deschanel had secretly been writing and recording demos for many years. She sent them to Ward who upon hearing them encouraged her to let him help her record her music and that's when She & Him was born. Just by learning of how this collaboration came about makes me take this record far more seriously than say Pete Yorn's release with Scarlett Johansson. I admire the work of Matthew Ward, his music is addictive and his production also needs to be noted as being simplistic but incredibly effective. Upon learning of this collaboration, I was taken aback but also very curious. What would the end product sound like? Were Ward's token folksy guitar hooks going to work with Deschanel's angelic vocals to create something genius? I knew nothing of this release before I purchased it, I avoided sampling the album before its release and refused to read any reviews, I didn't know what to expect and to be honest that was the best part.
The album opens up with the delicate but tremendously engaging "Sentimental Heart". The track begins with most of its focus placed mainly on Deschanel's beautiful voice, backed only by a temperate piano melody. The adorable vocals take prominence over the instruments for the majority of this track, but it only makes it all the more special, this is delicate romance at its finest. Deschanel's voice is required to evoke as much emotion as possible due to the lack of instrumental accompaniment, and she manages to do this. There's enough melancholy in her voice to let the listener know exactly how she's feeling. Lyrically this song is about heartbreak and longing for someone who isn't coming back, just listening to her sing, you know this without even taking notice of the lyrics. A fitting introduction to an album of equally as luscious songs.
"Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" is a slice of adorable pop with a touch of country. It's seems to take it's inspiration from upbeat 70's pop songs, with a modern twist. Deschanel has a sort of flirtatious thing going on with her vocals, and Ward's rollicking guitar riff that is introduced mid way brings the song into much rockier territory. The chirpy piano melody fits perfectly with the guitar riffs, and the happy vocals make for an enjoyable listen, try not to tap your feet by the end. Lyrically, it's simple, but that is the case with most songs present on "Volume One". It most certainly doesn't take anything away from a fun, standout track.
The next song takes things into slightly upbeat territory. "This Is Not A Test" stands out for being cheerful and breezy. I've admitted many times before to being a fool for strumming guitars and a sultry voice and this song really delivers. Production on this track seems a little tidier than on other tracks, it stands out for this very reason. It feels quite reminiscent to cheery pop songs from the 60's and Deschanel's slight country twang present on this track also adds a nice touch. This song is probably the catchiest with an infectious chorus and addictive tune, a personal highlight for me.
"Change Is Hard" progresses nicely, but the recorded version lacks something special on the live version. Still a pretty song, but the live version is so much more, her vocals are more passionate, as is Ward's guitar riffs quietly strumming alongside her. Though the recorded version is still a pleasant enough listen, it doesn't require the drumbeats, her vocals and his riffs are all that's needed, as proven by the live version. This song really echoes classic Dusty Springfield, with its roots firmly placed in classic country.
I could describe the next track as a ballad. "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today" possesses all the things a good ballad should have, but somehow it comes across as something much more. On the surface, things seem to be quite joyful but underneath it all lies something darker and meaningful. Deschanel's voice accompanies a lovely piano arrangement, with sparse drumbeats scattered over for good measure. One of the better produced songs in my opinion, not quite vintage pop, not quite modernised folk. It lulls between those labels, all the while remaining pleasing to the ear.
"Take it back" is a sincere, gentle ballad, which really knows how to tug at the heartstrings. Once again, everything has been stripped away to reveal an emotional Deschanel reciting some truly precious lyrics. The arrangement is kept simple as is the production but everything fits together perfectly, from the lush vocals to the heartfelt violin introduced half way through the track. It's an ideal ballad, relying on minimal use of instruments but focusing more on the tone of her voice. It could at times be described as simple, hushed and unassuming but its simplicity is what makes it so special.
"I Was Made For You" might possibly be my favourite track. It's vivacious; it's fun and boasts a retro sound that instantly makes me think of The Ronettes. Every time I hear it I suddenly get the urge to sing into my hairbrush - unfortunately, it happens. Anyway they could have stuck with the folksy, country sound, which is layered all over this debut, however the pop sound makes an appearance and it's greatly appreciated. Ward and Deschanel could have gone down the route of recording something modern, but instead they've tapped into an era when pop music was still good. The cutesy drumbeats are there, as are the chirpy vocals. A song produced in good retro fun. If you like The Crystals, The Ronettes or their modern counterparts The Pipettes, this song was made for you.
Next up is a cover of the classic track by The Miracles, later covered by The Beatles. "You Really Got A Hold On Me" manages to hold it's own, by no means better than the original but still a pretty, updated version. This stays true to the original though Deschanel's enchanting and gorgeous vocals bring a more feminine touch to the song. Compared to the original, this is far more subtle and simple, many layers have been peeled away to reveal something quite raw, hushed, uncomplicated, but beautiful. The acoustic sound behind this track really is what makes it stand out and Ward's sparse and minimalist production leaves Deschanel's voice to take the reins, it works and rather well I might add. Captivating from start to finish, this is one cover I am incredibly impressed with.
"Black hole" has all the makings of a classic vintage country song, but doesn't quite live up to expectations. It reminds me of classic country as opposed to modern - think a feminised Johnny Cash. This song has a very acoustic and natural vibe about it, relying purely on Deschanel's animated vocals backed by a sweet chorus of "ooh la, la la's". Her voice is somewhat reminiscent of early Linda Ronstadt though not nearly as polished. "Black hole" boasts a simple but soft arrangement; cute on the surface, but not a song I actively listen to. It's got the foundation of a great up-tempo ballad, but falls flat halfway through.
My least favourite track comes in the form of "Got Me". It's got some pretty piano melodies and charming drumbeats dotted over some impressive vocals, but the country influence is just too much. The guitar has a heavy sounding country twang that echoes all the way through, and at first, it's bearable, but by the end I'm neither impressed nor offended. It's got the makings of a classic Patsy Cline love song, but lacks the heart to justify the comparison.
As far as Beatles covers go, I'm seldom impressed. The original version of "I Should Have Known Better" is a cheery, upbeat number, which seems to be given a Hawaiian makeover. That's the only way for me to put it. It's unexpected but surprisingly adds a charming touch to a track, which ultimately could have become yet another folksy number on an album full of them. The folksy, indie roots are there, but things seem a lot more light-hearted, and Ward's input is also welcomed on this track. He's not just singing backing vocals, but equally as present as her, and it works, so much so that it makes me wonder why he's not so present on other tracks. His chilled out voice meshes perfectly with her lucid tone.
"Sweet Darlin'" feels like a throwback to 60's guitar pop. I'm once again thinking Phil Spector, am I listening to the Ronettes? The retro vibe this song presents is kitschy and fun, even her vocals are far more lively and energetic, though it's less catchy than "I was made for you", it's still equally as inspiring. "Sweet Darlin" possesses a fuller production than on previous tracks. If I had heard this song before knowing who sang it, I would be convinced it was something from the 60's - this is by no means a bad thing, the sound comes across genuine and never pretentious. Also I feel like I need to mention one of my favourite actors, Jason Schwartzman co-wrote this track, aw isn't that sweet? Actors helping out fellow actors!
The album ends with their own personal rendition of "Swing low, sweet chariot". It doesn't really work as a stand alone track but it's a nice way to bring the album to a close. It's very unprocessed, basic and shows a very tender, soulful side to Deschanel's lovely voice we've come to know. At 1:37, it's short, and seems more like a purposeful close rather than a track with any resonating qualities. In honesty I don't particularly make any effort to listen to this track as once you've heard it, that's about it, but it's nice nonetheless.
To put it simply, Deschanel is showing the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Lindsay Lohan how to do it properly. Other singers coming from an acting background usually seem to depend on fancy sound effects to drown out their atrocious vocal abilities but one thing that must be noted about this debut is the fact that Deschanel's voice is what it is, not altered in any way and for the most part, is the most pleasant instrument on the album. Her voice comes across untrained, but in a really good way, everything is natural and raw, just like her talent. If you're still sceptical about an actress attempting to carve out a successful music career you just need to hear one track to know she is genuine, there is nothing contrived about this release,it's nothing groundbreaking but when you consider Deschanel wrote the lyrics to these songs (bar the covers) herself, I'm impressed. To me this entire project feels sincere and genuine. A true passion for making music and creativity have gone into creating this record, that much is obvious.
"Volume One" clocks in 36:28, not long by any means, but each song is kept short and sweet, which I can appreciate as not a single track outstays it's welcome. This album seems to have taken most of its inspiration from music of an era when corny sound effects weren't around to mask lack of talent. Everything here is out there, soulful vocals, sweet lyrics and the most basic of instruments. The melodies are simple, as are the lyrics, but this is what makes the album so special and enduring. A word that springs to mind when I listen to "Volume One" is organic. There is something pure about Deschanel's vocals, a lot of the time; focus seems to be firmly placed on her with sparse instruments complimenting her voice perfectly. Ward's production also needs to be mentioned, things are kept simple, and at times very rustic, but this only reinforces the tone he may have had in mind when creating this album, an optimistic, emotional yet retro collection of heartfelt songs. Lyrically this album isn't up there with the greats, it does at times seem amateurish and I truly hate to report this as Deschanel wrote the album herself, but honestly the lyrics aren't bad, just nothing spectacular. The theme of the album seems to mainly be about love, heartbreak and longing and she perfectly demonstrates this with her emotional vocals.
She & Him will never be what the commercial masses may want this shining Hollywood starlet and talented indie rocker to be. Their music is far from conventional (as for current charts are concerned) and not something one would expect, but regardless, they've made an album for themselves and the end result is a pleasing one. Though commercially it will never be seen anything enormous, it's a wonderful album, chock full of compelling melodies and skilful production. Though I am a huge fan of Deschanel (it's really not that obvious, is it?) my only complaint is the lack of vocal input from Ward. He has a beautiful voice that works incredibly well with hers, when they do physically collaborate, but he's not as present as I would have liked. Though his vocal talent may not be evident, his input is glaringly obvious and this album is clearly a well-put together collaborative effort.
When it comes to recommending this album, I'm really not entirely sure whom it would appeal to. Many would expect a Hollywood starlet to release something with records sales in mind, but that thought never once crossed my mind after I listened to this album for the first time. Once or twice I forgot that singing is second to Deschanel's Hollywood career, things felt utterly natural and she seems completely at ease doing this. Her singing at times comes off slightly unpolished but this only adds to her appeal. This album is a mixture of country, indie, folk and retro pop music - think Phil Spector when imagining the pop influences. If you like your music subtle but at times nostalgic, with most of the emphasis on deep but beautiful vocals, I can't see why you wouldn't appreciate this release. It's not conventional, but as soon as you hear it, it feels like a throwback to 70's pop music. Behind this release is genuine heart. One aspect many seem put off by is the heavy country sound. I admittedly don't adore country music, but I'm a fool for classic country, and that's where most of the inspiration seems to come from.
When I played this album for the first time I was engrossed and hooked on Deschanel's voice, and for quite some time too. At first I imagined I would need to be in a certain mood to listen to "Volume One" in its entirety due to the overwhelming retro melodies and country influences, but surprisingly I find myself listening to it when I least expect to. Some might describe it as a mood album, and to an extent that is true as this album does help me paint quite a summery picture in my head but there are songs on here that really resonate with the listener. I've had it for well over a year now and it's stuck with me, in a big way. Deschanel clearly loves making music, her voice is beautiful, and she has a knack for writing lovely songs, but it must be said without Ward, this album just wouldn't be what it is. They clearly work well together and will continue to make beautiful music. "Volume One" is a collection of sweet vocals, beautiful retro melodies and two very talented individuals behind one incredible debut. I'm waiting with baited breath to see what "Volume Two" will bring. That or Munchausen By Proxy's debut ;)
1. Sentimental Heart
2. Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?
3. This Is Not a Test
4. Change Is Hard
5. I Thought I Saw Your Face Today
6. Take It Back
7. I Was Made for You
8. You Really Got a Hold on Me
9. Black Hole
10. Got Me
11. I Should Have Known Better
12. Sweet Darlin'
13. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Currently available to purchase from www.amazon.co.uk priced £11.98.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Sentimental Heart
2 Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?
3 This Is Not a Test
4 Change Is Hard
5 I Thought I Saw Your Face Today
6 Take It Back
7 I Was Made for You
8 You Really Got a Hold on Me
9 Black Hole
10 Got Me
11 I Should Have Known Better
12 Sweet Darlin'
13 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot