Thursday, March 20, 2008

She and Him - Volume One (Plus a Stream of the Entire Record)

She and Him
Volume One (Merge, 2008)
Grade: A-

Download: She and Him - "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"
Download: She and Him - "Take It Back"

Some things are just meant to go together: chips and salsa, Jack and Coke, my chemistry homework and a bottle of cheap vodka. But what happens when the mega-cute co-star of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is added to indie rock heartthrob M. Ward's already blossoming career? Will it be too saccharine to handle? Or will it strike just the right balance between sugar and spice?

Named She & Him, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel set out on Volume One to answer those precise questions.

The answer is that Ward and Deschanel go together like Mr. Pibb and Red Vines.

The album opens up with "Sentimental Heart," a piano-based slow jam about a broken heart. It gets off to a little bit of a slow start before busting out into heavy vocal layering that characterizes the rest of the album.

From the album's lead single, "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?," it was hard to predict where exactly the album was headed. As it turns out, the duo has crafted an album of pristine, late '50s/early '60s girl group pop music.

Overall, Volume One is a refreshing album because Deschanel is honest and simple in her lyrics. She writes words that neither bleed too hard from the heart nor break it down too far for us. But what truly makes her a sympathetic figure on the album is her voice. Deschanel's a little scratchy, she doesn't have the best range, but she really makes the most of what she's working with. If the duo's SXSW set was anything to go on, the sound holds up live, something for which I have an immense amount of respect.

Ward nestles Deschanel's lyrics and voice in drifting, drawling Brian-Wilson-in-the-shower-with-the-Ronettes style guitar licks. As cheesy as that sounds (and as cheesy as it could have been), the whole thing works out great. Volume One still manages to sound retro without being overly nostalgic or winking too much at the audience (take that, Vampire Weekend!). With Ward coming at the album from a background that incorporates basically every facet of American music in the past 50 years, Volume One's fixation on the '50s and '60s just seems like the next logical step for him.

And the album is mercifully short. Much like last year's mega-hit video game "Portal," Volume One ends before it can overstay its welcome. Clocking in at almost 40 minutes, the record ends on "Sweet Darling," a re-imagining of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The act of bringing an album to a close before you run out of ideas doesn't get enough love, but She & Him leave the listener with not only a satisfying listen, but a reason to come back for more.

Stream the album in its entirety over at MySpace.

(April Wright)

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