I once had a friend describe the Flaming Lips as a band whose concerts made you feel in harmony with the rest of the world. I didn’t leave feeling the same way—that hamster ball mainly left me afraid for Wayne’s safety—but I do think that’s a great description of She and Him. Something about the combination of Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward, and their throwback sound leaves you wanting to make friends with whomever happens to be next to you in the audience simply because you’re happy. Classics, the duo’s second covers album and their first release with Columbia, manages to retain the same effect—from those first few notes, you just feel good. For me, their records feel like home, like everything will be all right if I just lie down for the next hour or so and let Zooey Deschanel’s voice wash over me. There’s a possibility that that exact feeling is the intention behind Classics; the thirteen songs here are familiar to anyone who grew up with a variety of music in their home, and that very familiarity is what gives this album its strength.
Characteristically, the record is mostly filled with late Fifties and early Sixties standards, though Deschanel and Ward reach back as far as the Thirties with “We’ll Meet Again” and “Stars Fell on Alabama.” In their announcement for the album, the duo simply said that they were recording some of their favorite songs, and it is a credit to them that they chose ones that worked with their aesthetic, retooling them just enough to make them their own. The tunes are recognizable to the casual listener; to one who counts them among their favorites, nothing heretical has been attempted, though each track is an admirable addition to a long list of these songs’ covers.
If there’s any kind of theme here, it’s love—love longed for, love found, love lost, and love untrue. Deschanel’s voice is particularly suited for the yearning of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” a song most of us associate with 1990’s Ghost, but which was originally written for Unchained, the 1955 prison film centered around an inmate who struggles with the decision of finishing his sentence or escaping to see his wife and family. In Deschanel’s hands, the song is haunting, reminding the listener of its origin.
Deschanel and Ward don’t limit themselves here; the record moves from tracks like the Motown-esque “Stay a While” to the lover’s lament “I’ll Never Be Free” with ease. Deschanel gets to show her vocal range on “This Girl’s in Love with You,” using registers we’re not used to hearing from her. Even in “Teach Me Tonight,” where the pair doesn’t stray far from the source material, they somehow manage to make it seem a worthy addition to the standards songbook. M. Ward steps up to the microphone, too, instead of just providing his usual harmony, and takes the lead on “She”; his gravelly tones offer a marked contrast to the versions we’re used to hearing.
In songs like “Would You Like to Take a Walk?” She and Him’s retro style works in their favor; when Deschanel asks, “how about a sarsaparilla?” it doesn’t feel too strange. Even Deschanel’s personal image adds to the song’s believability—who else these days could sing a song with lyrics like “when you’re strolling through the wherezis” or “when you have no whozis to hug?” The pair does Billie and Louis proud, and the track comes off as neither too saccharine nor parodic.
Still, the record has a slight overproduced feeling to it, perhaps an effect of the duo’s new partnership with Columbia (read: much more money). Each song was recorded live with a twenty-piece backing orchestra, which is a bit jarring when one is used to the more laid-back, indie feel of She and Him’s previous albums. The orchestra also poses another problem: Ward’s guitar playing is often overshadowed by the band behind him. However, if these are the only drawbacks to an album filled with much-loved classics treated respectfully and done well, then I’m obviously nitpicking.
1. “Stars Fell on Alabama”
2. “Oh, No, Not My Baby”
3. “It’s Not for Me to Say”
4. “Stay a While”
5. “This Girl’s in Love with You”
6. “Time after Time”
8. “Teach Me Tonight”
9. “It’s Always You”
10. “Unchained Melody”
11. “I’ll Never Be Free”
12. “Would You Like to Take a Walk?”
13. “We’ll Meet Again”
Rating: 8 out of 10
Cori Mathis is a Ph.D. candidate at Middle Tennessee State University, where she is working on her dissertation on the teen television drama. When she’s finished, she hopes to see critics using more exact terms to discuss the genre. Her scholarly work has been published in Slayage and elsewhere. In her spare time, Cori can often be found quietly editing the typos on publicly posted signage, pinning complicated meals to cook after graduation, and attempting to sneak in a nap whenever she can.