She & Him

His: By Nate Baker

She & Him, She and Him, She and Him … say it ten times fast and it begins to sound like the chug-a-lug of an oncoming train, which is about what the hype surrounding this celebrity pair amounted to leading up to their first ever gig, the closing night slot of Noise Pop 2008.

Their story, (that is, of course, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel) is quaint: he’s a renowned left-of-center songwriter; she’s a left-of-center actress and a closeted songwriter, “hoarding her home demos like acorns in the winter.” They share a love for the California AM radio stations of their youth and, during the making of a film called “The Go-Getter” in 2006, record a duet. As these things do, it leads to talks and plans for an album. Enter a host of great musicians and producers, like Mike Mogis, who flesh out the tunes. It gets the stamp from Merge Records and away they go, chug-a-lugging toward their date with history, March 3 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.

Live music diehards know that festivals can be a test of will and endurance and for many it had been a long week of shows. Though the sold-out crowd seemed a tad knackered, it was the kind of glad exhaustion that accompanies a runner’s high. Sweating booze from a week’s worth of hangovers and still standing!

A healthy buzz communicated through the hall during what seemed an excruciatingly long change-over from Whispertown 2000’s set. Finally the doors opened and out they walked, Deschanel deferring to Ward for first out, and thus they took the stage as Him and She. Her trepidation can be forgiven; she may be a star of the independent lens but indie rock shows are, afterall, Ward’s bag.

Deschanel’s inexperience as a singer was immediately evident as they struck up “Sentimental Heart.” Her voice was timid and flat through the first verse and during the chorus no help arrived. Was She bombing? Applause for the tune was genuine insofar as it gave the audience great release from a) waiting so long for the band to appear, and b) enduring Deschanel’s visible agitation, for which there was no small amount of sympathy.

Still the crowd was behind her and She rebounded nicely with “Change Is Hard,” a tune that is a good match for her voice, which really is strong once she’s used to the water. More importantly it reveals the film star’s influences—most strikingly the country soul of Dusty Springfield–and in so doing validates her whole musical personae. This the light-bulb tune: “Oh, this is what she’s about. Right on!”

It is easy to be suspect of actors-turned-singers. Who’s really gonna give Scartett Johansson’s album of Tom Wait’s covers a second listen after it drops? How many people were duped into buying Mila Jovovich’s techno-backed bilge a few years back? What Deschanel has over these ladies is classy taste (Tom Waits is awesome and all, but ScoJo, isn’t this a stretch dear?). Deschanel is into some really great music and it comes through: Roseanne Cash’s seven year ache, Mary Ford’s old-school country torch songs, Phil Spector’s girl groups, Springfield’s honeyed hurt (not to mention beehive coif).

It was nice to see M. Ward take a backseat to Deschanel this night and so the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at Noise Pop 2008 should go to him. He never overcooked his harmonies or his guitar playing. Afterall, this rock n’ roll thing is his gig and he should be given credit for piloting Deschanel into the spotlight while never getting in her way.

Perhaps their cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” wraps-up She and Him with a neat bow. It’s not as heart-stoppingly soulful as the Miracles’ version or as tight as the Beatles’, but there is a mellow tarnish to their rendition, a front-porch looseness that invites the unexpected because there is something illuminating in it, like in a vocal hiccup, or in the unlikely pairing of a film star and radio star.

Hers: By Emily Logan

Hype. It’s a fascinating thing. The cynic in me wondered if the hype surrounding M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel’s new project She & Him was all based on the good looks and cult popularity of Ms. Deschanel. Hey, I admit I myself am guilty of being slightly enamoured of her, considering she was in one of my favorite movies ever (Almost Famous) and she has a certain style and grace that women my age tend to fawn over, if in lust, jealousy or disdain.

So as a friend and I sought to see first-hand what She & Him was all about, I confess I had my doubts as to if the show would be worth the $25 in advance and almost an hour in line outside GAMH. And while I should be focusing this article on the fabulous locals who took the stage, Emily Jane White and Adam Stephens of Two Gallants, I regrettably missed most of both acts because of the ridiculous line outside the venue. And Stephens, though what I did hear of him was stunning, was unfortunately drowned out very easily by the chatty audience, packed to the walls, seemingly waiting for the headliner. And as I do not like to say anything too negative, I will only say that She & Him was preceded by Whispertown2000 (it may be a style, but I think they should buy a tuning fork).

And so, She & Him came on with a full band and to a roar of audience cheers and clapping. Deschanel, complete with low-cut dress, puffy bangs and a half beehive, looked like she was straight out of the 50s and sang with the confidence of a pro. For most of the set, she stood tall and swayed back and forth with a tambourine in hand. She moved to the piano for a few songs, and the band left the stage for a fantastic group of songs with just Ward and Deschanel. This was the highlight, by far.

My companion for the night made the observation about their debut album, Volume One (which comes out March 18), that she wished M. Ward sang more. Well thankfully, the live show not only brought out his singing, but his incredible guitar playing, which flowed back and forth between authentic 50s jamming and modern experimentation.

There is so much more to say about their performance. But in the end, any negativity that could have been tied to the hype was dispelled with this show for two reasons: 1) the crowd reacted warmly and enthusiastically to M. Ward just as much if not more than to Deschanel, and 2) damn can she sing. The set ended with a cover of “I Put a Spell on You” that literally made my jaw drop. Her control and emotion is just out of this world, and although the album may not showcase that perfectly, she proved it to me and everyone else that night. Watch out Hollywood, music may steal this gal away.