Friday, August 08, 2008

Every Actor Wants To Sing

She & Him – Volume One (Double Six/Domino, 2008)

This seems to be one of those years for film stars venturing into song. Were it not for David Sitek’s characteristically inventive production, I doubt anyone would really have given Scarlett Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers any credit at all. Her flat, double-tracked vocalising certainly didn’t rise to the considerable challenge posed by her choice of material.

This collaboration between the lovely Zooey Deschanel and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire M Ward is a good deal more straightforward and unpretentious than Johansson’s peculiar venture. In fact, it’s really rather lovely – a sometimes melancholy, sometimes joyful set of spare and simple songs evoking classic country, dusty soul and, best of all, early 60s girl-pop (particularly on the irresistible ‘I Was Made For You’ and ‘This is Not A Test’).

Deschanel’s voice is unlikely to set anyone’s world on fire, but she sings confidently within her limitations. Most of these songs are originals, and they are both touching and convincing. Perhaps Deschanel and Ward’s affiliation with the sounds and techniques of 60s pop occasionally push the music into pastiche – but it is always handled with sensitivity and affection.

Some have criticised her handling of pop standards as the weakest moments here – and the Hawaii Pineapple treatment of The Beatles’ ‘I Should Have Known Better’ is probably the album’s lowpoint. Perhaps the performance of Smokey Robinson’s ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ is similarly hokey, but there’s something about the vocal interjections of M Ward (the only time his voice appears on the album) that seem to make this version strangely affecting.

Ward’s arrangements are appropriately naturalistic and delicate with minimal embellishment. As a result, there’s a slightly rustic and pastoral feel to this material – perhaps redolent of those wonderful auburn New England autumns. It’s surprisingly easy to relate to Deschanel’s homespun words which are deliberately unflighty (‘I sometimes find what’s beautiful in things that are ephemeral’). It’s a warm and immediate record with a great deal of charm. The title offers some vague hope that there might be more than one ‘volume’ whilst Deschanel has suggested that she views this venture as much more than a one-off side project. Good for her, and for us!

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