She & Him: Melt Away – A Tribute To Brian Wilson [Album Review]

She & Him
Melt Away: A Tribute To Brian Wilson
Fantasy / Concord Music [2022]

She & Him is the occasional musical duo that consists of actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, from the TV sitcom “New Girl” and films like “500 Days of Summer” and “Elf,” and M. Ward, who besides making about a dozen solo albums was part of the Monsters of Folk with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, and produced and recorded albums with Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, and Mavis Staples. Deschanel showed off her singing voice on the Will Farrell Christmas classic, singing half of the duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the shower, and then leading the group in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” at the climax. When she and Ward met and sang a duet of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border” in the movie “The Go-Getter,” and he learned that beyond her acting she was a songwriter, She & Him were formed. The duo have released three volumes consisting largely of her songs, as well as a classics covers collection and two Christmas albums, covering two of Brian Wilson’s seasonal songs on A Very She & Him Christmas, “Little St. Nick” and “Christmas Day.”

Brian Wilson, for all the myths, legends and gossip about his drug experiments and reports of mental illness and breakdowns, was the creative force behind The Beach Boys and one of the very best American pop songwriters of a generation. Wilson reportedly wrote much of the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, which Rolling Stone Magazine called the second-greatest album of all time in a critic’s survey in 2009, after hearing The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album. In the spirit of competition, McCartney has suggested that he and Lennon wrote much of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in an attempt to one up Pet Sounds. There’s little doubt that the reputation of The Beach Boys has been dragged through the wringer by Mike Love’s perpetual summer “classic pop/rock & roll revival” tour, but all you have to do is settle down for an afternoon with The Beach Boys Good Vibrations; Thirty Years of The Beach Boys 5-disc box-set to be reminded of the musical inventiveness, harmonic heights, and creative genius that underlies most of Brian Wilson’s deep, and well-recorded catalog.

Here on Melt Away, Ward and Deschanel offer up a couple of Wilson’s pop hits, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Don’t Worry Baby,” but spend most of these 14-tracks plumbing the catalog for less well-known songs to serve up with their own unique twist. On “This Whole World” and “Kiss Me Baby,” we hear Wilson’s classic melodic swagger, while Deschanel stacks vocal harmonies one upon another to help create that Beach Boys meets Phil Spector wall of sound. Ward joins in on the vocals here and there, taking the occasional lead, but it’s often his subtle acoustic guitars, and the instrumental combo that lays the songs foundation, whereas Wilson had one of the best recording bands in the world, The Wrecking Crew. For “Heads You Win-Tails You Lose,” Ward gets to step forward with some great surf guitar sounds.

The album opens with “Darlin’,” one that Wilson reportedly wrote for the yet to be formed Three Dog Night but was recorded by The Beach Boys with his brother Carl singing lead. Ward takes the first verse, and Deschanel the second with lots of high vocal harmonies, while Ward offers up a solo that works perfectly in the retro pop rock setting. “Deirdre” feels like an old-school folk-rock shuffle, but that great melodic chorus with lots of stacked vocal harmonies gives it away as a Wilson composition. The album’s title track, “Melt Away” is a melancholy folk ballad perfectly suited for Deschanel’s vocal style, while the tortured pedal steel guitar that underlies “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” pushes the quiet lullaby into torch song territory as Deschanel emotes richly in the delivery. While we tend to think of The Beach Boys through the high energy delivery of a “Little Deuce Coupe,” but She & Him have portrayed the fuller, richer, often darker side that is often present in Wilson’s writing.

But of course, it’s the more familiar pop numbers that feel the most comfortable. Ward singing the verses on “Don’t Worry Baby,” Deschanel delivering the angelic female response to ease a worried mind. And even if “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is written from the perspective of a world that has to dream about a better, kinder, gentler life, it’s still shines a bright light on the romantic hopes and dreams that so often fill our thoughts in our hopeful youth. “Do It Again,” which was a Love and Wilson nostalgic collaboration written later in the original Beach Boys’ evolution, a nostalgic attempt to return to those simpler, surf song days. Here Wilson joins the vocalists and delivers the albums widest vocal harmony range, serving up the song’s retro spirit with real aplomb.

Ward and Deschanel are obviously serving up a labor of love here, as they revisit these classic Wilson songs, and their appreciation and joy comes through these recordings.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” / “Don’t Worry Baby” / “Do It Again (ft. Brian Wilson)”

Brian Wilson & The Beach Boys / Jenny Lewis / Neko Case

Volume 3 (2013)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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