Though the capacity to act and sing well may co-occur a fair amount in the realm of musical theatre, when actors release an album (Scarlet Johansson, Bruce Willis) or when musicians star in movies (Snoop Dogg, Jessica Simpson) it is generally a good idea to maintain a safe distance.
Notable exceptions exist, of course, and now you may add to the list of acceptable crossovers the effervescent Zooey Deschanel, who has barrelled into her first full-length recording release with welcome support from a charming folk-indie star on the rise, M Ward. Together they are She & Him.
The combination doesn’t really turn out as tantalisingly deadly as it sounds. For all the equality implicitly stated in the duo’s goofy name, the She certainly comes first in the recording, with M Ward lurking in the shadows and providing only occasional vocal support. But Deschanel does well starring as the main attraction: her silky smooth vocals blend into M Ward’s retro-pop sound rather well, and she can summon the passion of a great soul singer and push it out like an indie queen.
Deschanel follows others likes Feist and Cat Power down the road of soulful indie singing. Songs like You Really Got A Hold On Me (a Smokey Robinson cover) showcase her power: placed in a stark-naked setting of quietly strumming guitar and M Ward’s vocal accompaniment, she is able to display her raw singing power.
Sonic landscapes shift around behind Deschanel across the length of the album; as tunes introduce elements of pure indie pop, old timey slide-guitar country, rattling tin-ally piano, and light rock, the singer keeps her cool and holds everything together throughout the course of Volume One.
The only downfalls come near the end of the album. Why is this? Who wants to go out on a sour note? But M Ward and Deschanel violate a certain unspoken law of never covering Beatles songs with their limp take on I Should Have Known Better. It’s not horrible – if it had been an original song, it would have been simply pleasant. But with the odd reverberations of the Beatles’ original behind it, the song becomes sour.
And rounding out the album is a rather lacklustre version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Traditional songs are usually fair game in pop music, but they never truly inspire in this sort of context. Something like Amazing Grace might have worked out better, but with only a minute and a half devoted to this melody, it might as well have been Jingle Bells.
So M. Ward has launched a successful record (and perhaps recording career) with Deschanel, who is now available for future collaborations. But how long will this retro country-pop material stay fresh? With some female singers coming to the fore, it seems like Deschanel needs to avoid the flavour of the month and stomp out her own musical niche. And with M Ward’s echoing vocals always harkening back to ’50s radio, he’ll need to give it some variation or end up being a one-trick pony gimmick – like an indie version of T-Pain.