Almost a year after releasing Post-War in 2006, M. Ward appeared on Late Night to give a hushed, almost ethereal reading of ‘Chinese Translation’. It was an amazing performance, enough to elicit the kind of animated reaction Conan O’Brien reserves for musical acts you can tell he actually enjoys, but equally notable were Ward’s friends at his side: Neko Case cooing and strumming an autoharp, Kelly Hogan doing the same, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James playing acoustic guitar and even singing a whole verse. It was a well-framed family portrait of some key players from the indie-folk clique that had grabbed the spotlight in the few years prior, banded together for something so minor as a one-off TV spot.
Ward and James entered the circle touring with Conor Oberst after he concurrently released two acclaimed Bright Eyes albums at the beginning of 2005. Though Oberst’s Saddle Creek Records clan had always been notoriously interdependent, there was this new crowd that would hoist indie-folk to more mainstream success: a calmer, less emotive Oberst; James and his band’s touches of psychedelia; Ward, with his impossibly antique production style; and Jenny Lewis, a fellow Saddle Creek alum, eventually taking over as the genre’s alpha female. For a short while they were everywhere, on stages and records together and apart, and, as a friendly group of young musicians collectively churning out pleasant music like the great folk circles of decades past, they were a welcome presence. But despite the familial bond seen in moments like that Conan performance, the past year has been mostly barren for this crew, the lukewarm reception to Bright Eyes’ 2007 follow-up having been almost a foregone conclusion. Their whole brand is now just sort of there, existing for the pleasure of extant fans and maybe NPR listeners, but never pulling any surprises and hardly producing anything fresh.
So it’s a precarious role that Zooey Deschanel is stepping into as the first new face — and voice — this crowd has seen in a while. As the “she” in She & Him, she’s paired with M. Ward, who spends most of their Volume One producing, hardly lending his husky voice at all. Deschanel, herself a film analogue to Jenny Lewis as an indie-turned-mainstream crush object, has a capable voice, but she doesn’t have the distinctiveness to rescue a stagnating genre, micro- as it may be. Nor does she, in her functional, oldies-inspired songs, establish any semblance of personality beyond the smart, cheery but vulnerable pose one could assemble from pieces of her film roles. But that being said, the pair have thrown together a record that still thrives on the kind of collaborative energy Ward and his crew have always maintained.
He — or “him,” or whatever — treats her voice plainly, dressing it with plenty of reverb but keeping the arrangements tastefully simple. At least on the front half, he calls to mind the mildly restrained Phil Spector of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, an album that’s coincidentally a touchstone for most of Deschanel’s songs. Only after the run-through of ‘You Really Got A Hold on Me’ do they shift from ‘70s-style folk-pop into country, Deschanel resembling Lewis more and more as she affects a dainty twang. Fortunately, though, she carries none of the latter’s baggage as a looser sort of indie-rock lyricist, which proved the major setback on Lewis’s solo folk/country debut. Instead, she’s just Zooey, the plain-voiced good girl who tends to get burned.
While Volume One’s no sea change for the indie-folk brand, it’s a healthy reminder of what drew people toward it in the first place. Ward and Deschanel are playing themselves: he’s not exactly reinventing his career by channeling decades-old production styles, and she has virtually nothing to precede her except an audience. Having built her film career on reputable indie roles while never standing for something affectedly so (unlike, say, Ellen Page’s turn at the Moldy Peaches), she’s the ideal sort of public figure to sidle into a scene of staunch revivalists, fairly popular though still existing, albeit barely, on the periphery. Now, she and Lewis can really duke it out — though maybe they’ll just duet instead. •