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She & Him's trip down memory lane at the El Rey

March 26, 2010 |  1:32 pm

She_him_presshere275A few songs into She & Him's Thursday night set at the El Rey, actress-turned-singer Zooey Deschanel had an apology to make. All the sad songs, said Deschanel, were loaded up top, and it wasn't her intention to start the gig by bumming out the crowd. 

But even when She & Him does sad, it comes with a side of sunny. Singing "Thieves," from the just-released Merge Records album "Volume Two," Deschanel was neither gritty nor overly glum when she declared that "a love like ours is terrible to lose." When it comes to her vocals, Deschanel is more matter-of-fact and resigned -- an extremely conversational take that acts as if the last two decades of diva showboating and reality TV over-singing never happened. 

Yet now two albums into a three-plus-year career, Deschanel showed Thursday night that she's more assured than ever, bringing in glimpses of upper-register shading, and her letting her notes drag and fade around M. Ward's warm guitar work. With the Chapin Sisters providing backing harmonies and added keyboard textures, "Thieves" was timelessly vintage, featuring orchestral swells that split the difference between heartache and what could have been the showcase cut of a hand-drawn Disney film. 

Portland, Ore.-based artist M. Ward plays to Deschanel's strengths, keeping the arrangements gently nuanced. For all the talk of She & Him as a retro-pop band, the act has gradually taken subtly adventurous steps over its two albums, using girl group frames and country dalliances as a base. "Me and You" was all acoustic candlelight, while "Lingering Still" flirted with a bossa nova groove and M. Ward's own "Magic Trick" was made-over into a Herman Hermit's-styled ditty. 

Performing the Coachella warm-up gig as a seven-piece outfit, with adept instrument-swapper Mike Coykendall defining much of the bass-driven melodies, She & Him were sweet without being cloying. NRBQ's forgotten "Ridin' in My Car" was as perfectly breezy as the title suggests, and M. Ward shadowed his vocalist on "In the Sun," filling in the space with electric flourishes that teased at overtaking the song. 

Sharing the bill with locals the Living Sisters, harmonizing pros that seem suited to be performing outside a barbershop, the night, admittedly, felt as if it was channeling another era. But it's less a recreation than a fantastical nostalgia trip for a period that likely only existed in a dream. It was, after all, Deschanel herself who compared the El Rey chandeliers to something out of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, giving the reality around her an imaginative spin.

--Todd Martens


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Album review: She & Him's 'Volume Two'

Photo: M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel. Credit: Presshere