Tuesday, February 26, 2008

leak of the week - volume one (she & him)

even if there's nothing wrong with love, it can still be a painful bitch. just ask zooey deschanel, whose vocal turns on volume one prove her an experienced victim of the human condition. in between starring in a wide and generally beguiling all comers with her big blue eyes, deschanel partnered with americana all-star m. ward for the much-hyped, grammatically-incorrect superduo she & him. lauded since their collaboration was formally announced, she & him's eponymous first release, volume one, is due out on merge on march 18, and (despite merge's murderous efforts to keep a lid on it), leaked last week. but don't go rush out and rustle up a copy - getting your hands on a volume one advance isn't nearly good enough to make breaking the law worthwhile.

of all the significant records that have leaked this year (some counts are as high as sixty), volume one ranks among the most anticipated. especially beloved since 2006's post-war, ward's contribution factored significantly in the hype surrounding she & him, but deschanel's entrance into the independent music mainstream was probably the duo's biggest draw. the album is not divided along the simple lines of vocalist/musician; instead, deschanel sings and wrote most of the album's music, while ward plays and produced it. ward's absence from the songwriting process isn't immediately apparent, though volume one does lack much of his distinctive big band folk vibe, the first of many strikes against it. no music novice herself, deschanel performs with fellow actress samantha shelton under the moniker if all the stars were pretty babies, a small-scale cabaret act that has not released any albums. her voice is well-practiced and clear, but these qualities actually count against her in the end. bereft of accent, huskiness, or, often, sincere emotion, deschanel's vocals are the principal reason volume one fails to grab the ear or engage throughout the brief album. on a personal note, i was really disappointed by the fact that ward is such an irregular vocalist, appearing on only two songs (though he offers minimal backup on "change is hard") when his voice is one of the charismatic in contemporary music.

lyrically and thematically, volume one is a record about love and absence (mostly absent love). opener "sentimental heart" certainly sets the tone, one that is echoed by virtually every song on the album. "i thought i saw your face today" has the chorus "no, i couldn't help but fall in love again," "black hole" features a jaunty melody and "i'm all alone / on a bicycle built for two," and on the lonesome "take it back," deschanel debates "the possibility / of staying in my corner." so, we get it zooey - your love life is a drag. the problem isn't that she can't stop singing about how lovesick she is, it's that she doesn't sound in the least bit interested in her own, purported despair. her voice has no catches, no choking up, and if she's trying to sell us her sadness, it's not worth face value.

she & him suffer most from the lack of palpable emotion in deschanel's voice, an absent element that puts her at odds with the artists she so carefully tries to emulate. deschanel and ward were first drawn together by a mutual love for golden era pop - the ronettes, linda ronstadt, dusty springfield, etc. - and attempts to hearken back to that period, without much success. they tackle smokey robinson's "you really gotta hold on me," ronnie spector's "i was made for you," and the beatles' "i should have known better" by doing little more than putting a saddle on each. "i should have known better" is the only other song that has ward on vocals, and the only one with simulated horse clops, fortunately. the fire and cleverness of post-war has disappeared, replaced with a faux 50s feel that is tired and repetitive by the end of volume one's 36 minutes, a simulation of simple session songs complete with ubiquitous pedal steel.

volume one is not all bad, even if it is considerably less than expectations suggested, and there are even some honest-to-goodness good songs on there. "why do you let me stay here?" was released by merge for a reason - it's probably the album's best song, vocally and musically. it has the calculatedly shambolic feel of "to go home," especially with the addition of melismatic backup vocalists and dogged guitar, and passes by much too quickly. even the pedal steel sounds less tired on "change is hard," another worthwhile track that sounds like a true collaboration between deschanel and her band, with some of her sincerest vocals interwoven with artfully designed instrumentals. i truly like "you really gotta hold on me" for ward's vocals as much as anything else, though this song's production differs significantly from the rest of the album - there's a lot of space in its recording, with echoes and a gravitas that the rest of volume one can't attain.

volume one's brevity is mostly a downside, even if you don't happen to like the record. songs feel short though not underthought; rather, their limited scope allows for little to no experimentation. though billed as a duet, she gets first billing because it's mostly about her - her songs, her voice, her style. on the whole, volume one would be improved with a little more breathing room - even if it is only to separate songs, which are thrown at you rapidfire and without needed intervals between them. "you really gotta hold on me" succeeds due to this aural space; otherwise, i find that the album flits by me without needing attention. the songs blend together, mostly undefined by sincerity or instrumental and production diversity, and, at best, is a background record for coffeeshops or half-listened to radio country.

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