She & Him feature the now familiar, but still surprising pairing of country-folk artist M. Ward and actress/singer/songwriter Zooey Deschanel. Their fourth release, Classics, presents tunes from the well-worn catalogues of such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dusty Springfield and more; one could reasonably wonder what could be done to freshen decades-old material. The superb musicianship, strong arrangements and comfortably enticing vocals of Zooey go a long way to dispelling any such concerns, while the addition of M. Ward’s vocal contributions are modest but serviceable.
The opening track, ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’, sets the tone and the approach. The duo wisely don’t attempt to replicate the most successful version of this chestnut, that of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Zooey is a less elegant, less precise singer with a smaller range than Ella, and M. Ward’s singing is as gruff, but far less musical than that of the venerable Armstrong, who delivered more with an average voice than just about any singer in history. Yet Ward and Deschanel pull this one off in a casual, utterly charming fashion. And so it goes for the rest of the album.
Most successful tracks: ‘Stay Awhile’, ‘This Girl’s In Love With You’ (fabulous electric guitar on this one), and a wholly successful reinterpretation of the Righteous Brothers classic ‘Unchained Melody’. In fact, it might be argued that Zooey’s take on this song truly is unchained, and leads one to a highly satisfying conclusion: she improves upon the original. Those who carp otherwise (a few noted critics) simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Zooey may prove, actually, in the end to prove a better singer than she is an actress, and she is no slouch in that department.
If this album does no more than introduce a new generation of fans to music of high quality, songs of lasting value, and sparkling musicianship, it will have made a worthwhile contribution to our cultural life. We’ll gladly take more of this as compared to say, any future release by Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj or Rihanna (pretenders all).
As for M. Ward, his genius lies in collaboration rather than the vocal arts. That’s no knock against him. Such was the case, after all, with Sonny Bono when he took up with Cher. That turned out more than a bit alright.