It takes, I think, a certain amount of cheek to designate something which may or may not have a follow-up “Volume One,” and the concept is perhaps more honored in the breach. The first Smothers Brothers best-of compilation was called Golden Hits Vol. 2: not only was there no Volume 1, but everything in Vol. 2 was newly recorded versions of previously-issued material. The Traveling Wilburys issued two albums, Volume 1 and Volume 3. Even Mad magazine got into the act: the first issue (October/November 1952) was of course Volume 1, Number 1; more than 400 issues later, Mad has yet to reach Volume 2.
Which brings us to She & Him, whose first album on Merge Records is called Volume One. And the group name makes more musical than grammatical sense: She (Zooey Deschanel) is out front, but the backgrounds (and occasional background vocals) come from Him (M. Ward). I was woefully unprepared for this set, since I had barely heard of Ward, and my one exposure to Deschanel, her portrayal of Trillian in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, had left me with one of those annoying fanboy crushes. Based on Volume One, that crush isn’t going away any time soon.
Deschanel wrote most of these songs, and they fit into a mostly-forgotten segment of the pop spectrum: wedged between Shelby Flint and Norma Tanega. (“Black Hole,” to me, sounds like a long-lost sequel to “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”; here’s a live version from SXSW 2008, with Ward on guitar.) Not to say that they’re all of a piece, either: Deschanel does girl-group fluff (“I Was Made for You”) and country yearns (“Got Me”) equally well. Ward’s backgrounds, augmented with outside drums and pedal steel, are spare and satisfying. There are three covers: the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better,” given a Judy Collins-ish folkie-yet-arty treatment; Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” with both voices harmonizing over a single guitar; and the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which brings things to a gentle close. Not one track over four minutes, and not one wasted moment.
Technical note: While CDs are available, I bought Volume One as a download from Amazon.com ($8.99). Unlike previous Amazon downloads, which were at a fixed 256-kbps bitrate, these tracks are all variable-rate, floating up to 320 at times.