Nostalgia. One of the more relevant feelings in the age of “10 Things Only 90’s Kids Will Get” listicles. It’s an itch that might be scratched by watching Even Stevens, The Goonies, or old Warner Brother’s cartoons. Or maybe listening to oldies music. The clean cutting guitar of the Beach Boys, the cajoling croon of Frank Sinatra. There’s something in the sound that evokes a warmth for a better time, or at least a different one. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward make up the duo known as She & Him, a group that has built their music largely on the back catalogs of American music.
December marks the release of their newest album. Classics, a cover album. If you’re thinking “Really? A cover album this late in their discography?” don’t worry, I thought the same thing. As a group steeped in oldies sounds already, a cover album for their 5th release does seem a bit derivative. A bit phoned in. If you can get past that, the album is in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from the duo: a nostalgically charged collection of tunes, with a Portland hipster twist.
Stylistically, the album teeters. On one side, a stripped-down, chilled out version of the familiar sound. Intimate and sexy and shiny. On the other, the songs feel a bit stale. Even though we’ve never heard these songs done by them, it certainly feels like it sometimes. Luckily, it by and large tends to teeter more frequently in the former. “Stars Fell on Alabama,” and “Oh No, Not My Baby” are the first two tracks on the album put the album’s thesis in big, bold letters. As opposed to earlier work by She & Him, Classics aims to provide a less showy version of the glittery, candy-coating we’re used to.
Songs like “She” or “Teach Me Tonight” continue this theme, and presents a She & Him less concerned with making every song fun and catchy, but more with creating a mood. At it’s best, its something you might hear walking by a jazz bar in New York. The album is a drizzly sonic snapshot of a city noir, full of broken hearts and bartenders constantly polishing the bar top.
Whether for good or bad, one thing the album does superbly is get me listening to the originals, or at least the other versions. Here’s a small selection of the names that have also covered these tracks: Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Buffett, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong. John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Willy Nelson, Amy Winehouse, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. This represents only a small selection of the full list, and represents titans of yesterday’s music industry. These are their songs, their stories. As She & Him leaves their mark on these tracks, they do so with creative growth and love for the material close in mind. Classics is a love letter to nostalgia.