Articles by

<Mike Dougherty>

11/11/09 4:00am

Hey, it’s Pop Scene! Our monthly feature in which Mike Conklin and Mike Dougherty climb out from under their indie-rockist, um, rock, to find out what regular people all over the country are listening to. This installment features selections from the iTunes music store.

TITLE: Fireflies
ARTIST: Owl City

Conklin: So Owl City is just one dude, Adam Young, who simply cannot manage to get the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights”out of his head, which is understandable, of course, on account of it being one of the best pop songs of the decade. Young sounds exactly like Ben Gibbard, to the point where you’re almost embarrassed for him: Gibbard’s style——his phrasing, his tone—is distinctive enough that, in indie/emo circles, it’s about as easy to recognize as someone doing a Bob Dylan or Cher impersonation. “Fireflies”is full of exactly the same type of lighthearted electronic indie-pop that made the Postal Service so likable, but it’s also about how awesome fireflies are, so, you know, it’s not even a little bit likable.

Dougherty: A couple years ago, when hellogoodbye had that one pretty great song, it almost seemed like auto-tune and whatever program the Postal Service were using could actually make commercial emo more fun, at least when the people making it had a sense of humor. Instead, we got so-goofy-it’s-ignorant bullshit like 3OH!3 and, on the other end, this weak sort of fantasy poetry about wanting to dream more because, you know, whimsy. Huh? If a grown man really wrote this line about getting “a thousand hugs from 10,000 lightning bugs,”then I don’t know, maybe misogyny and deaf-bashing are the way to go.

TITLE: Replay

Conklin: Iyaz has some sort of connection to Sean Kingston, and the internet even seems to think Kingston may have written this song. It would make sense, I guess, since it’s exactly the type of big-budget, high-gloss “reggae”that Kingston has singlehandedly made my favorite genre of music. It’s about shorties, mostly: loving shorties, talking on the phone with shorties, meeting shorties at the mall…lots of things having to do with shorties. Anyway, Iyaz thinks this one particular shorty is like a melody that’s stuck in his head, or like an iPod that’s stuck on replay, even though the actual iPod function is called repeat, not replay. Silly, yes, but I will definitely never change the station if this song comes on.

Dougherty: Iyaz was apparently discovered by Sean Kingston, and most listings of “Replay,”which is mostly harmless but no “Beautiful Girls,”say Kingston appears somewhere on the track. But thank god this is (probably) not true, because that would be one crazy, J.R. Rotem-meets-Parent Trap mindfuck, where it’d be impossible to tell where one fake-Jamaican dude ends and the other fake-Jamaican dude begins. Iyaz’s MySpace bio details how he was discovered by Kingston, how they “grubbed on delicious chicken”together, and how his music is inspired by “island shorties.”NB: Miami is not an island.

08/19/09 4:00am

Phil Elverum, the eccentric songwriter who’s carried his home recording projects through a series of mutating names and incarnations for over a decade now, has never seemed to be in the business of making new friends. After a series of landmark experimental records for the K label as the Microphones, he’s stuck to a trickle of self-released projects as Mount Eerie: a couple could be considered albums, but just as many have been books of photography, journals, posters, and all conceivable lengths of singles and EPs. The impossible output is supported only by shows in galleries and small venues, most of which are stacked with Elverum’s musical companions and somehow always start about three hours later than they’re supposed to.

Elverum’s M.O. remains decidedly old-school, mirroring the business plans of 90s punk and indie labels, while the infrastructure that’s traditionally supported careers like his has largely collapsed around him. Indie distributors are dropping out of the game left and right; the kinds of zines that once would’ve tracked his every move have dwindled to a few websites and blogs that mostly press major releases. Without the reputation that precedes him, it’s not likely he’d be accumulating many new fans in 2009.

This is especially true upon hearing Wind’s Poem, his new pseudo-black metal experiment, which opens with a minute of messy, furious drum and guitar noise that sounds like it’s coming from behind the closed door of a dark room you’re not sure you want to enter. Needless to say, it’s not a friendly introduction; in fact, it may be the tinniest, soupiest sound he’s put to tape. The metal passages on Wind’s Poem are thick with so many layers of washed-out distortion and processed cymbal loops, there’s hardly any melody to discern. Though that first minute is probably the most black metal moment on the record, it’s a fair warning of what’s to come.

Elverum has been public about the gradual development of his Norwegian metal curiosity over the past several years, and Wind’s Poem isn’t his first time dabbling. Last year’s Black Wooden Ceiling Opening was definitely metal, though filtered through the expansive ear of a home producer and avowed analog nerd. Despite the persistent double bass drum and the twin bass/guitar riffs, there was a warm, almost organic kind of distortion at play that felt nothing like the thin, icy sounds more commonly ascribed to black metal. Calling it “black wooden” was only half a joke.

Wind’s Poem is more deliberately true to form, though the bursts of aggression are paced at a crawl between softer, airier tracks that force you to cautiously tune back in. He’s used the same dynamic pattern on past albums, alternating between overdriven, drum-heavy rock and longer, more patient soundscapes. “Through the Trees,’”constructed almost exclusively of vintage organ and whispered vocals, clocks in over 11 minutes. “Ancient Questions,” carried along by swells of delay-treated piano, could easily be mistaken for Grizzly Bear.

This is neither typical Mount Eerie, nor a hasty repackaging of an established underground subgenre meant to earn cool points with the black t-shirt kids. Instead, it’s somewhere in between. Elverum’s songs have always been dark and introverted, broad sketches about nature and human senses. Countless lyrics can be boiled down to “how wind feels.” At heart, this isn’t much different from the work he’s nodding to. The connection was always there; on Wind’s Poem, it’s just louder than before.

06/14/09 1:16pm

I split the beginning of Northside day 3 between standing at the L’s 2009 showcase at Spike Hill and wandering up and down Bedford Avenue, where the street was closed off and cars were suddenly replaced with tables, kids making magic marker drawings, and, at one point, the band Dinosaur Feathers singing really clutch harmonies. I did, however, make it back to the bar in time to see Darlings, who I haven’t seen much since their way early days playing NYU house parties, and they were super, super tight, and seem to have written some newer, more complex songs that stretch their garage-rock formula a little. I realized later that maybe they just weren’t as drunk at 3pm as they are in someone’s apartment at midnight, but either way, they sounded tight.

A few minutes later at Public Assembly, Henry Wolfe performed a suite of songs about – well, something, which I didn’t quite catch as a result of showing up about halfway in. It was a long story, and I gleaned that it somehow involved a cowboy. The songs were written by a guy named Peter Field and arranged for a string quartet and harpist by the conductor onstage, whose name I also missed. Wolfe handled vocals along with two professional backup singers. The music was beautiful – gentle and meandering, played by an unquestionably talented group. Especially considering Wolfe is probably best known in NYC as one half of the now mostly defunct indie pop band Bravo Silva, the performance was one of the more eccentric and unexpected I’d seen this weekend.

At this point, I ducked into Cameo Gallery to get out of the rain and check out the space, one of the newer venues that’s popped up in the area over these past few months. Getting back to the room involves walking through a maze of hallways, doors, and curtains behind the Lovin Cup Cafe until it feels like you’re either about to hit the kitchen or come back out onto the street somewhere on the Lower East Side. The band setting up was called Blame the Patient, playing as part of a showcase by Real Talk Teen, who, for lack of any real information about them, seems to be a group that puts together shows featuring really cool teenagers for the sole purpose of making audiences of twentysomethings feel terrible about their lives. The five band members all looked high school aged, and as they started playing I could only mutter “fuck” under my breath, audibly but not so loudly that it would be picked up by the video camera on a tripod nearby being operated by someone’s mom. Seriously, this band was good – tighter than a lot of the more professional bands I’d seen this weekend, and mostly confident enough to really rock out onstage. Clearly raised on Dinosaur Jr and the Pixies, someone has been looking out for their musical knowledge since day one, and it shows. I hope they stay together, but don’t actually achieve great success until people twice their age can maybe catch up a little bit.

Way later in the night, after sulking for about seven hours, I saw Cymbals Eat Guitars play Music Hall to a weirdly not-packed room, although Paul Dano was standing right next to me the entire time and I didn’t even notice until he left to get a beer. I also did not think Paul Dano was of legal drinking age for some reason. Obviously I was pretty out of it at this point, but the band played big chunks of their great debut record, which translated surprisingly well to the stage. The record is a trip, alternating quickly and constantly between sections of noisy chaos and soft, quiet come-downs, and though the band was clearly frustrated with the way people would tune out and start talking during the slow parts, they never held back when the noise was due. They’re still a pretty young band too, though not quite as literally, and it should be interesting to hear what they do next provided they don’t implode in a month like so many other Pitchfork-beloveds.

06/13/09 12:27pm

After a day of doing nothing but watching Degrassi: The Next Generation episodes in marathon format on MTV, which I still suspect was some kind of backwards marketing campaign for Drake, the Canadian rapper who’s trying to shed his past as a Degrassi child actor and pretend he’s, you know, a real hard dude, it was time to re-enter the real world of tiny venues hosting bands whose members probably never starred in any teen dramas in their past lives. So I went to Public Assembly to catch Grooms, who in some shape or form used to be called the Muggabears, and have always consistently garnered many Sonic Youth comparisons for their noisy yet suprisingly melodic guitar rock. This time around, they came off tighter than they have in any past incarnation, and considering Sonic Youth put out the most predictable record of their career last week, maybe it’s time to come up with a new starting point. If you have any suggestions, let us know, as their new record is going to be crazy, and we’ll probably have to review it in a couple months.

A few minutes later, right around the time the Pittsburgh Penguins were easily securing a Stanley Cup victory, the Tallest Man on Earth, a blog-beloved Swedish singer-songwriter who stands in sharp contrast to everything implied by the terms “blog-beloved,” “Swedish,” and “singer-songwriter,” played a set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. A couple years ago, back when the success of the bands Loney, Dear and Peter Bjorn and John looked to be sparking a trend that Swedish pop would soon completely supplant American indie rock in the taste bracket of everyone we know, I wrote a piece for this magazine about it. And while my main point — that Swedish folks tend to have a perfectionist approach to pop music, just like they do with stuff like modular furniture and fonts — still stands, the idea that pretty wimpy bands like PB&J and Loney, Dear (and, while we’re at it, guys like Jose Gonzales and Jens Lekman) should be the stereotype for Swedish pop among the American hipster set is shamefully shortsighted. The Tallest Man on Earth, who is not actually very tall, does not have a soft, pleasing baritone; his voice has more of a Tom Waits rasp ratcheted up about an octave and a half. His songs are short and sparse, never introducing a single element beyond his voice and his forcefully plucked acoustic guitar. And his stage presence is a thing to behold — aside from applause, the audience was pin-drop silent for his entire set. I’ve long held the notion that the ability to engage a crowd using only vocals and a single instrument is one of the most impossible and unlikely feats for a musician of any kind, but to see someone truly pull it off (to a packed Music Hall of Williamsburg, no less) is a pretty incredible to see.


John Vanderslice played next, and though no matter what I say now, he will sound like a hobo compared to all this fluff about the Tallest Man on Earth, he really truly did play a great show. Vanderslice is among the more reliable songwriters operating out of the well-established Pacific Northwest league of indie rockers, and has been for about two decades now. He puts out a pretty great new record every couple years, including his most recent Romanian Names. If there’s one gripe with him, it’s that he might be a bit of an over-producer: he seems to take as much pride in self-producing his records in proprietary studios as he does in writing them, which, while totally respectable, removes the filter of an outside producer who might tell the person recording when to maybe, say, rein in the synth parts a little bit. All this is to say that he always comes across way better live than he does on record, turning every song, even the slowest, synthiest ones, into solid, straightforward rockers. Tonight was no exception. I hardly ever think this about anyone, but here’s hoping he puts out a live album sometime soon.

06/12/09 12:33pm

Despite every intention of seeing the first couple acts to officially open the festival at the Studio B kickoff party, I got distracted by all-you-can-drink sake at some Greenpoint sushi place and didn’t show up until about 11. Brightblack Morning Light went on soon after, and I have to admit, I haven’t really followed them since their first record for Matador came out about three years ago. It was right around the time the whole freak-folk movement was getting big, and I guess they got lumped in with that scene because their shit is real druggy and all the members look like straight-up hippies, but their set last night was mainly long, freeform jams, anchored by low, electric piano basslines and accented by a swelling two-man horn section. More than any kind of folk, freak- or otherwise, their songs played out like slow, spacey reggae, an unexpectedly calm way to kick off four days of presumably spastic showgoing. (Spastic showgoing after the jump.)

After about three jams that clocked around the ten-minute mark, I bounced to Coco 66 for the Albertans, one of The L’s 8 NYC Bands You Need to Hear (and Have About A Dozen Opportunities to See This Weekend). First things first: did you know Coco 66 has lasers? Well, they do. Lots of ’em — like 200 — all swirling around in crazy patterns while bands stand in front of them, brazenly risking blindness as they play. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, and it makes me feel better that we’re one step closer to the existence of my dream concert venue (basically, a planetarium with a bar that also serves breakfast food). Anyway, the Albertans played around NYC pretty regularly a couple years ago before effectively ditching the city and moving to Canada. Back then, they called themselves Sex With an Angel, and if you skipped them because of the unfortunate name, you should probably try to catch them this weekend before they split for the north again. “Sex With an Angel” became their amazing EP, and they have a new record coming out in a couple weeks that should, if this set was any indication, be yet another solid collection of the sort of tight, polished, expertly arranged pop songs we’ve come to expect from frontman Joel Bravo.


It’s worth mentioning, too, that Bravo’s great, previous NYC band of a few years back, Bravo Silva, has not yet been forgotten. Bravo and his former bandmate Henry Wolfe (aka Henry Silva) reunited on stage at the end of the Albertans’ set and brought out a couple old Bravo Silva tunes to the pleasure of a room full of more Bravo Silva fans than I even knew existed. It was one of those nice reminders that no matter how difficult it can be to carve out a niche here, folks are devoted enough in their fandom to stay with you no matter how much time you spend hiding out in Canada.

09/10/08 12:00am

Okkervil River’s moody, tousled, and always out-of-breath frontman, Will Sheff, wrote an online diary in 2006 called ‘It’s Hard to Be a Human Being When You’re on Tour’. Documenting the band’s tour across the U.S. following their first major success, Black Sheep Boy, Sheff dryly described losing his computer, his girlfriend, his grandfather and plenty of dignity, all in a trip that spanned less than a month. It’s a surprisingly unromanticized account of the exhaustion and straight-up pain that comes with spending each successive night in a new city, and the constant urge to self-medicate with the cheap beer, bad weed and prescription painkillers that fans dole out for good measure. Even considering the murder ballads he’s penned, the piece is by far his most depressing. More obviously, it’s also his most real.

His band’s new record, The Stand-Ins, and its predecessor, last year’s Stage Names, have gradually seen Sheff’s songs take more of this true-life, first-person approach. Still embracing the pace and tenor of short fiction, he’s stopped looking to folk tales and obscure one-column newspaper stories for inspiration; instead, he’s found enough fertile material schlepping across the country in a van. Of course, these songs are romanticized, if sometimes fictionalized accounts. The bouncy ‘Lost Coastlines’ is about a group of novice sailors out to sea, though their sentiments probably reflect those of most bands losing their bearings after daily 12-hour drives: “Though we have lost our way, nobody’s gonna say it outright.” It’s a clever way of dodging a whiny tone while still channeling all the road-bound frustration that’s clearly defined Sheff’s life since Okkervil River achieved a moderate level of fame — one that forces them to tour constantly, but never saves them from having to lead regular lives the way the rockstar myth would have people believe.

Sheff’s found a new level of truth in his writing that, while remarkably present in past songs about made-up characters, hits even harder when his topic is the passion of a music-loving band and its fans. He even deliberates it in ‘Pop Lie’, a perfect pop song about the inherent fraudulence of crafting — and for the fans, losing one’s shit to — of course, the perfect pop song. Simultaneously channeling and arguing against  the Hold Steady’s gloriously obvious classic-rock steez, Sheff rails on the songwriter, the guy the fans “had wrecked their hearts upon, the liar who lied in his pop song.” But it’s followed by ‘On Tour With Zykos’, which captures the slow motions of the now exhausted performer coming off a tour and a break-up, expecting to be inspired by both but struggling to feel anything at all. In the end, though, Sheff finally finds a sympathetic character in ‘Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979’, channeling the obscure, real-life glam rocker who, before dying of AIDS at 36, fell victim to the worst antagonism the music industry had to offer.

On the Stage Names’ ‘Title Track’, Sheff conjured the atmosphere of “a blood-flushed and heart-rushing race either to kick off too soon or stick around too late, to be far too dear or too cut-rate.” Whether he was calling out the insular world of current day indie-rock or referring more broadly to the plight of any entertainment career, it’s clear he has a conscious stake in where his own band fits into the scheme. But these past two records cover more than industry hang-ups: they also betray his total obsession with performance. To watch Sheff live is to see a total showboat, one who relishes singing to a crowd that digs the ‘Pop Lie’-style singalong and makes it painfully apparent. Now, thankfully, he’s found a seemingly endless source of inspiration in this relationship to mid-level fame that’s like that of so many New Yorkers to their city: constantly feeling lost but never deigning to admit it; constantly disparaging it but far too attached to ever consider an exit.

09/03/08 12:00am

This time last year, Ra Ra Riot had resumed playing shows following the death of their drummer, John Pike, who disappeared from a house party in Massachusetts and drowned in a nearby bay. At the time, they were touring on an energetic, promising EP, at a point where most bands choose to either call it quits or finally commit to launching a career. Following Pike’s death, the remaining members kept touring constantly, and now, out of the same period of weirdness and uncertainty, comes their first full-length. The EP had a strain of melancholy, but it was a bouncy record too, packed with tons of great melodies and arranged cleverly enough to resemble a band similarly situated last summer: Vampire Weekend. The Rhumb Line doesn’t really move beyond that — the liveliest four songs are rerecorded tracks from the EP, and the new ones (some with lyrics by Pike) might as well be. It’s an upbeat tribute mostly absent the sense of tragedy one might expect from a band that’s weathered more in their first couple years than most do over entire careers.


06/11/08 12:00am

Lil Wayne has been calling himself the best rapper alive since Tha Carter II, which mostly precedes his new Carter III in name only. The almost three-year stretch between those two records, epic by rap album standards, has already become the stuff of hip-hop legend: Wayne not only held onto a potentially fickle audience — people who love equal parts hard rapping and raunchy comedy — but somehow in that time became the biggest rapper alive, if maybe not the best. It took a couple key mixtapes and a constant flood of guest verses, all building up suspense for the long-delayed Carter III, but the success was enough to give Wayne something to brag about.
If it would then seem like that three-year gap was spent meticulously engineering this record to be a perfect number one, it doesn’t sound like it. Wayne’s best verses have all been druggy, free-associative rants, most of which sound completely unedited, doubtfully ever even written down. And that’s pretty much the entirety of Carter III: songs with loose themes and expensive beats, big hooks and a bunch of verses about nothing in particular. If he’s been doing anything other than standing in front of a mic with a styrofoam cup of cough syrup cutting who knows how many tracks a day, it doesn’t show. It hardly makes a difference that this is a proper album with marquee producers and guest stars, a couple monster singles and a hilarious cover that makes for great concert t-shirts.

His lyrics, all long strings of quick punchlines packed into barely-rapped verses, are, even more than usual, borderline incomprehensible. In ‘Let the Beat Build’, over a Kanye West beat that could’ve been a Common leftover, Wayne says something about “the wave pool, at Blue Bayou/and then I waved, fool, as I blew by you.” Maybe he’s shouting out to Louisiana, but it seems more likely that he’s just too lazy not to say the first thing that comes into his head — even if that means making a reference to a tiny water park in Baton Rouge (had to Google that one). More importantly, he makes a bizarrely clever insult out of it and it somehow makes up for the fact that the whole line is nonsense. Wayne’s a pro at this whiplash factor — the sudden recognition that he’s turned a dirty joke for his teenage fans into a perfect couplet, and then followed it up with a few more.
Still, the rapping is predictably weaker than his mixtape stuff, but the production picks up the slack. Almost every track sounds radio-ready: Kanye’s faux-Coldplay crooned ‘Shoot Me Down’ comes off way better than similar attempts by Lupe Fiasco and Kanye himself, plus he nails ‘Comfortable’, with an R&B chorus so one-for-the-ladies he brought Babyface out from behind the curtain to sing it. Wyclef Jean supplies a blatant summer jam called ‘Mrs. Officer’ — the hook is Bobby Valentino singing a siren noise in between Wayne lines like “all she wants me to do is fuck the po-lice” and “Lady, what’s your number/she said 9-1-1.” It all distracts from the lack of any real hard rapping on Wayne’s part: Carter III is a tight, fun record from someone who’s spent the last couple years gleefully stomping on other people’s tracks, unlike Carter II, which came from a Lil-er Wayne still trying to prove himself.

At the beginning of ‘Mr. Carter’, a song premised by the fact that Wayne and Jay-Z have the same last name, he rants, “I feel BIG — not big in the sense of gaining weight or nothing like that…like, colossal.” When he says it, he sounds a little shocked, but it’s his one point that can’t be argued. People can debate whether he really is as next-level as he claims, but there’s no denying how much he believes he’s the best rapper alive, more genuinely than anyone else in recent memory. If Kanye West makes an act out of his ego, Lil Wayne lets his speak for itself. Really, neither of those should seem like positive choices, but it’s hard to imagine any rappers right now, let alone two of the most successful, going any other way.

03/26/08 12:00am

It’s tempting to write off Unwed Sailor just from all the weird, overblown fantasy themes of their artwork and song titles. Not to mention some of the text on their website, which characterizes them as “a two-hearted octopus with every arm working twice as hard.” For an instrumental band, they have a lot to say — it almost betrays Johnathon Ford’s roots as a mid-90s emo-core vet, where long, clever song titles were pretty much the norm. But the words got really out there on 2003’s Marionette and the Music Box, which was supposed to chronicle the story of, well, a marionette searching for a music box, though there was also, not improbably, a unicorn involved. And while the record alone didn’t quite illuminate this story arc, it did work on a completely different level: as a well-composed post-rock album comprised of a series of carefully brief vignettes.

Little Wars, their new record, shares its name with an early-century H.G. Wells book laying out the rules for staging battles with toy soldiers, and the title is oddly apt — not that there’s anything too brazenly militaristic, but there’s an abounding grandiosity to the whole thing that’s played out on a relatively small scale. It’s thanks mostly to the drums, carrying over the big, hollow sound Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan established on their first EP. Drums have always been paramount to Unwed Sailor’s ability to distinguish themselves from the tons of other instrumental post-rock bands floating around — for one thing, they tend to recruit great drummers, and, for another, it’s the main instrument that keeps lots of their more ambient songs, especially those eking into the six- and seven-minute range, from sounding like background music to Myst.

Most of it is far more accessible than any of their other post-Marionette records, and that’s due in large part to the omission of all the lofty, almost prog-inspired fantasy concepts. The best moments on Little Wars are songs like ‘Aurora’ and ‘Echo Roads’, which are essentially structured like pop songs that could, conceivably, have sung melodies and lyrics. But thank god they don’t, because who knows how ridiculous those words would be.

03/19/08 12:00am

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.