Ever since Will Ferrell caught Zooey Deschanel silkily crooning “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in the shower in Elf, the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl seemed destined to release an album of pop standards. It’s taken over a decade, but for an actress whose film and television roles have practically defined hipster adorkability in the 21st century, Deschanel proves herself uncannily adaptable to the more refined musical tropes of Classics.
Although the 13 songs on Classics, her fifth studio album with musical partner M. Ward, were written between 1930 and 1974, very few of them are old-fashioned time warps. There are exceptions, like the syrupy “It’s Always You,” and “Stars Fell on Alabama,” which could have easily soundtracked a fella in a bowler hat taking a demure dame on a romantic moonlit walk in some old black-and-white movie, that attempt to hew as closely as possible to the songs’ original sonic blueprints. But more often, She & Him successfully manages to infuse the pre-hip material they tackle with a touch of go-go ’60s beatiness that keeps it from feeling creaky.
Both Deschanel and Ward deserve equal credit for this. Deschanel’s vixenly coo would have fit right in on a Phil Spector-produced single from the early ’60s, and while she’s best suited to the songs that are actually from that era (namely, two tunes made famous by Dusty Springfield, the hooky “Stay Awhile” and Goffin/King’s “Oh No, Not My Baby”), she’s also convincing as a ’40s jazz singer, showing a willingness to eschew rote note-by-note perfection in favor of performances that swing. Ward’s vocal contributions, meanwhile, are less distinguished: Removed from his usual indie-folk wheelhouse and cast into the world of jazz standards, he too often sounds like he’s doing a laryngitic Louis Armstrong impression. Fortunately, his interjections are kept to a minimum, and instead he elevates Classics with his relatively straightforward but deft jazz-pop arrangements that are warm and friendly, but stripped down enough to prevent the performances from getting too cute. He’s credited as the co-arranger for the 20-piece orchestra featured throughout the album, but he never comes close to indulging in hokey bombast. Rather, he proves himself to have an ear for subtle, homey touches—the twinkling champagne-reception piano on “It’s Not for Me to Say,” the swelling Motown-esque string section on “Oh No, Not My Baby,” and the clean jazz-guitar tones throughout—that define the sonic appeal of Classics beyond the obvious power of the source material itself.
Considering the fact that classics on Classics have already been rendered hundreds of times by some of the most legendary musicians and singers of the last century, Deschanel and Ward’s versions are surprisingly engaging. Their chemistry as singer and producer make even most frequently covered songs on the album—like “Unchained Melody,” here given a stark, haunting vocal-driven arrangement, and the flirty “Teach Me Tonight”—feel comfortingly familiar rather than rote or rehashed.