A breezy Nashville skyline of Brill building pop, She and Him’s Volume One follows love’s pendulum as it sways from hypnotist’s watch to wrecking ball, with actress Zooey Deschanel’s (She) voice vacillating from the Ronettes to Ronstadt while M. Ward’s (Him) accompaniment offers a survey of L.A.’s golden age of AM radio.
What began as a one-off collaboration for the soundtrack to Deschanel’s The Go Getter has blossomed into a warm (both loving and analog) tribute to ‘50s soul, ‘60s pop, and ‘70s country, often within the same song. Album opener and standout track “Sentimental Heart” begins as a cloudshade country ballad, with Deschanel’s sweetly naked and plaintive vocals skipping lightly over Ward’s melancholic piano and the staccato pierce of DeVotchKa violinist Tom Hagerman’s aching strings, before flowering into a sunburst of flowing vocal harmonies and mid-’60s folk-pop.
Elsewhere, the exuberant “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,” cross-weaves chugging, Carter Family twang into an eclipse of Zombies-style pop-rock harmony with steel guitar lines cat’s-cradled between the two extremes. The track sounds like a lost back-to-mono classic spun from Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel.
Classic girl-groups are recast through the punchy swing of “I Was Made for You” and the epic, string-swept pop of “Sweet Darlin’,” while “Take It Back” becomes a dreamy, piano-led torch ballad full of broken-lounge-singer gloom and candleflit, postwar malaise. Careworn and authentic, the prismatic scatter of songs on Volume One, filtered through the sepia tinge of Deschanel and Ward’s nostalgia, sound more like out-of-time gems than the loving recreations they are.
The credit belongs mostly to Decshanel, who wrote the songs over a five-year period of romantic disarray and whose honeyed, alluring voice dominates the record just as M. Ward’s restrained and knowing production supports it with a sparse collage of spinning 45 rpm wistfulness and lapsteel drawl. As such, this is Deschanel’s disc, which may be why only one of the three covers mixed within the album’s second half blends in with its Volume One counterparts. Though She and Him manage to decelerate “I Should Have Known” from the beaming pop smile of the Beatles’ original into the slow tease of Deschanel’s sensuous Cheshire grin, they fail to recreate the soulful grit and wounded heat of the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” The same is true for the slave spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a song whose inclusion makes no conceptual sense among the album’s alternating tales of anxious romantic investments and their diminishing returns.
Those missteps may keep Volume One from reaching the classic pop status of the music that so powerfully informs it, but the album — and, I hope, She and Him’s future — remains a bright and vital blast of etched vinyl grooves and gorgeous, unabashed pop classicism.