[THE NEW OLD] A female vocalist starting an album with the words, "Cried all night till there was nothin' more" probably sounds a bit offputting. It does to me—but not when that girl is Zooey Deschanel. And not when her album's ageless production and simple, shimmering accompaniment comes courtesy of local virtuoso M. Ward.
She & Him, the serendipitous pairing of actress-cum-crooner Deschanel—whom you may recognize, visually, from such films as Almost Famous (the sister) and Elf (the love interest)—and Ward, one of Portland's most gifted singer-songwriters, delivers all the emotional honesty of the above lyric without any of the suspected nonsense. The duo's locally recorded debut, Volume One, is pure nostalgic goodness: Every over-the-top lyric comes with a dose of playful attitude—not to mention each artist's singular sound.
Turns out, Deschanel has a one-of-a-kind voice, and she employs it in ways that are at once surprising and delightful. On standout track "Change Is Hard," it richly admits, "I did him wrong," over decidedly country lap steel guitar. But it's the counter-intuitive turn of the chorus, on which Deschanel sings "change is hard," and then drops down to a low, earthy twang on "I should know-oh-woah," that's so striking. You expect the melody to rise, but it's that spin on otherwise classic sounds that makes Deschanel's songs more than enlivened oldies ripoffs.
Just as the album's reinvented pop explores styles from Grand Ole Opry country ("Change Is Hard") to the big pop sound and echoing, claplike drums of Motown-era girl groups ("Sweet Darlin'") and even piano-led sultry jazz ("Take It Back"), Deschanel's voice is a tonal chameleon. Calling to mind Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt, it makes even more straightforward singer-songwriter fare like that first track, the aptly titled "Sentimental Heart," immediately distinct. And songs like "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"—which stands out thanks to Ward's instantly recognizable electric guitar—radiate a winking humor as Deschanel sings, "I think you're just so pleasant/ I would like you for my own."
Despite Ward's apparent musical contributions and backing vocals on the album's two covers—Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold On Me" and a Hawaiian-tinged take on the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better"—his gruff, whiskey 'n' smoke vocals are mostly absent. At first, you might find yourself wondering when he's gonna come in—that is, until you're completely engulfed by Deschanel's charm. At just a heaping half-hour long, the only thing Volume One leaves to be desired is more of the same. Thank God for that inherently hopeful title!
HEAR IT: Volume One comes out Tuesday, March 18.