Published Dec 05, 2014Covers albums can be tricky things, with their success (or failure) hinging on the artists' ability to pay homage while making each song their own. The fifth album from indie-pop duo She & Him (comprised of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel) finds the pair exploring a variety of pop hits from the 1930s-1970s. (It also marks their major label debut after the pair left Merge Records for Columbia this past June.) As a result (maybe inevitably) any vestigial threads of quirkiness have fallen away; while Classics is a pleasant enough album, it will forever mark the moment when She & Him went full Starbucks.
Classics features 13 songs, many of which are widely considered pop standards: "Unchained Melody," "We'll Meet Again" and "Teach Me Tonight" hold court with Charles Aznavour's "She," Chet Baker's "It's Always You" and "Stay Awhile," recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1964. Deschanel takes the lead for most of the performances, backed by Ward and a 20-piece orchestra. Some songs work better than others; some strange choices have been made here. For example, "Stay Awhile" feels like the most natural choice for Deschanel's warbly croon, but she's chosen to sing the song in a lower octave that makes it feel a bit inert, especially in comparison to the soaring original. Similarly, "Oh No, Not My Baby" — a song originally written by Carole King about loyalty and infidelity — is way too cutesy for its subject matter. On the other hand, Deschanel's stripped-down version of "Unchained Melody," backed with ghostly precision by folk singers the Chapin Sisters, is great, the closest Classics gets to a real showstopper. And as with a lot of She & Him's stuff, you learn to cherish the rare moments when Ward takes the spotlight. His whispery rendition of "She," buoyed by Deschanel's airy harmonies, is sweet, if a bit soporific.
This is an album that's holiday-ready: safe, inoffensive, pretty grandma music. While there's nothing wrong with that (grandmas are the best!) I occasionally found my mind wandering to She & Him's 2011 Conan performance of "I Put A Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. While the song was clearly out of Deschanel's comfort zone, she gave it her all: screaming, snarling and showing her teeth, while Ward unrolled his best Chris Isaak-styled reverb. This is arguably the closest this band ever got to true weirdness, and it's kinda sad to think that those days are likely behind them. (Columbia)