Last Night: She & Him at Bimbo's
She & Him
Monday, Nov. 3, 2008
Words by Jennifer Maerz,
Photo by Chrissy Loader
Better than: Jared Leto's 30 Seconds to Mars; Juliette and The Licks; Scarlett Johansson's Nico overkill on that Tom Waits cover album.
It's way too easy to shoot down actors trying out the whole singing thing. That's because most actors suck at switching into a music career. They star in one music biopic, or become buddies with one too many rock stars, and next thing you know they're on stage with Jesus and Mary Chain, or trying to stay in the "background" playing guitar as their bands take arenas. Even when they're paired with the best in the game -- as in Scarlett Johansson's partnership with the talented Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio on the Tom Waits cover project -- you still get the sense that the actor's just fulfilling another role by taking the mic, lacking any real talent to be a musician in their own right.
Zooey Deschanel, however, is a different story all together.
Watching her perform at Bimbo's last night, it was clear she's such a strong, charismatic singer it makes you wonder why she waited so long to kickstart this part of her career.
She took the stage as the lead in She & Him, the band that started through a chance cover she did with M. Ward on the 2007 film The Go-Getter. From that musical matchmaking, the indie starlet and the indie songwriter produced a record I thought until recently was a collection of covers it's so seamless in bridging styles and eras. Instead it's a batch of mostly original, really sweet country and pop ditties about love in its myriad makings and breakings.
There's nothing cloying on that record ( called Volume 1) and live there's even less pretense to the band. Deschanel and Ward are backed by a full cast of grinning, whistling musicians, including vocalist Becky Stark (on double duty as the evening's opener as Lavender Diamond). Deschanel carried every one of the originals, and a couple covers (including the excellent "I Put a Spell on You"), in a voice that's a little bit country, a little bit lounge-y, and a little bit rock 'n' roll. She can coo and croon like the best of 'em, evoking classic females from Joni Mitchell to Loretta Lynn to Karen Carpenter. But she also retains a lot of her own personality and character in there too. She's less than perfect, with a twang here and a raspy bit there, but it all makes her voice that much more welcoming.
She's also the perfect foil to Ward, whose music I find way too precious. Against her easygoing delivery, Ward's serious navelgazing lightens up a bit while he keeps his leading lady's sound on the edge between lite '60s AM pop and new indie rock. He pushed up against his mic and made all sorts of squish faces, but his voice was a downy backing vocal for the most part, which layered really nicely beneath Deschanel's powerhouse delivery.
The band also looked like they were having a lot of fun. Deschanel did quick, giddy little dances before the songs that seemed to be her favorites ("Sweet Darlin'", "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here"). She was also part of the instrument swap that kept things interesting. Both Deschanel and Ward played the piano at different times (and then, during their finale, a sweet tune about a disappearing magic trick, they played together). And the arrangements changed from full band to Deschanel at the piano to Ward and Deschanel singing over his guitar.
No matter who was backing her, though, Deschanel's voice was the star last night. It was as warm and genuine as the little bit of banter she gave the crowd -- a crowd that adored her so much one fan handed her a bouquet of flowers at the end of the show. There was a full house eating out of her cocktail-ringed hand, one guy next to me so ecstatic he couldn't decide between raising his beer bottle, his iPhone, or his "you're number one" rock hand into the air. So he rotated between the three.
The dude was a little over the top, but in general it's easy to get crushed out on She & Him. This is a band less about an actress taking a part than it is the sum of its parts -- an incredible singer and a talented songwriter and arranger making yesterday's love songs sound classy and relevant today. Which probably sounds like an easier task than it is, given how many other artists screw up that very simple formula.