She & Him: Volume 2

Sometimes all you want is a simple tune, something to take your mind of things. Although you love Dylan’s thought-provoking ballads, Steve Earle’s manifestos, and Ani Difranco’s frank self-analysis’s, all you want right now is to not think at all; save the intellectual stuff for another time, today you dance, you sing, you ignore the world. She & Him, the duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, have just released the perfect album for you.

Zooey Deschanel’s acting career has mostly consisted of romantic comedies that cast her as the fun but smart girl-next-door. Matt Ward, known as M. Ward in new-folk circles, is a self-effacing songwriter who also performs with the quartet Monsters of Folk. She & Him finds Ward and Deschanel collaborating on a project that fits her persona perfectly and challenges the musical perception of him.

Deschanel writes all but 2 of the album’s songs and handles lead vocals; Ward handles production duties and contributes backing vocals and harmonies. That alone suggests a change of focus in regards to Ward’s career. His releases are mostly self-produced and performed affairs that highlight his dark take on whatever subject he’s addressing. Here he relinquishes the spotlight to the actress/singer and blithely plays along, using his raspy harmonies as a fulcrum to her sunny vocals.

To say the songs on Volume 2 are uncomplicated is an accurate but incomplete assessment. Deschanel’s songs deal with the ups and downs of love affairs without delving into the messy motives that spur bad behaviors and result in spurn. What she does do exceptionally well is to play with language, using puns and metaphors like swing-sets and whirly-birds. “Brand New Shoes” exemplifies her knack for lyrical fun: “I had some brand new shoes, they were all red but they gave me the blues.” Deschanel is inspired by music of the 60’s and 70’s, even slipping in the phrase sock-it-to-him on “Over It Over Again.” She takes inspiration from Roy Orbison, Carole King and Bobbi Gentry and the arrangements show it; she uses everything from twangy pedal steel to ukulele, lots of tinkling piano, and acoustic guitar. The album’s 2 covers, NRBQ’s “Ridin’ In My Car,” and Skeeter Davis’ “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” indicate the type of music that appeals to Deschanel.

Both He and She have stepped out a bit more on Volume 2. Ward’s production is more lush than Volume 1, and he nicely contrasts his dark musical perceptions with Deschanel’s cheerful disposition. Deschanel’s harmonies have grown more intricate. A fine example of this is the album’s last track “If You Can’t Sleep” is an a cappella lullabye with layered vocals by both singers. It’s the kind of song Patti Page might have had a hit with in the 1950s. The beauty of this record is in it’s embrace of past genres and in the sweet simplicity in which it is rendered.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)