If you’re familiar with Zooey Deschanel the actress, then it won’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination to get used to the idea of Zooey Deschanel the singer-songwriter. Because she is one of those as well, and indeed a prolific one. Zooey had been writing confessional piano ballads for years before she caught the eye of indie folk journeyman M. Ward. The duo, She & Him, was formed: Zooey, the wordsmith and face of the band, and Ward, the guitarist, the arranger and all-round production wizard.
Ward’s talents aren’t tested too much on She & Him’s third full-length, the handily titled Volume 3. Zooey’s coy indie pop numbers are light, bouncy and cute for the most part, and Ward douses them with an authentic, retro feel, keeping them simple yet charming. Tracks like opener ‘I’ve Got Your Number, Son’ and ‘I Could’ve Been Your Girl’ are anything but complex but they’re joyously immediate, and lovingly crafted in homage to the 60s pop singers whose influence is written all over She & Him.
Most of the tracks on the album adopt this format: Zooey sings of a deliciously twee moment with a potential sweetheart set to a super-sweet acoustic dum-de-dum. On ‘Somebody Sweet To Talk To’ you can just picture Zooey perched coquettishly on a park bench somewhere, clasping her polka-dot dress to her knees and sighing to the setting summer sun as she longs for a romantic ramble with a beautiful stranger. In a nutshell, if you’ve seen New Girl, this is exactly the sort of music you’d expect Jess to make if she wasn’t so damned preoccupied with kooky antics and clumsy social faux-pas. It doesn’t always come off of course. The now trademark She & Him cover version is a bit of a stumbling block – this time it’s a rather nauseating cover of Blondie’s ‘Sunday Girl’ which doesn’t even attempt to take the track anywhere new.
There are moments on Volume 3 though where Zooey does cut a bit deeper. The piano ballad ‘London’ towards the end of the album is a superb, lilting paean to the cut and thrust of the capital, while ‘Something’s Haunting You’ scratches around with the troubles of a disillusioned lover. Ward again keeps his partner in check with tight, minimal production on both tracks.
All the drippy indie girl slush could be just as easily nailed as criticism on She & Him, and for many Volume 3 will be all too sugar-coated to be given due credit, but there is a degree of self-awareness in Deschanel’s songs and a growing maturity in her style. A glance back to volumes one and two of the She & Him project makes it abundantly clear that Zooey’s wising up. The early She & Him recordings were borderline self-parody, and when stood next to Volume 3 they pale in comparison. This latest effort is sharper, more concise and feels for the first time like a legitimate album as opposed to a quirky side-project.
I’m not completely sure whether my own pathetic crush on Zooey Deschanel is overriding my usual cynicism for this kind of thing, or if I genuinely really enjoyed this album. I’m going to stick my neck out though and claim the latter. Zooey’s idiosyncratic witticisms and kooky penchant for retro pop, when tempered by M. Ward’s canny production, are plainly loveable, painfully charming and tear-jerkingly joyful, and Volume 3 is their best attempt yet at bottling that spirit.
…Jack is listening to Deerhunter – Monomania…