Zooey Deschanel is definitely a child of California's better nature. On her and M. Ward's first record, she harks back to the golden era of the Golden State, somewhere between Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Heart Like a Wheel, when singer-songwriters from all corners of the US, Canada, and Britain were all in Cali making laid-back, radio-friendly records with a country bent. From the first listen, it's clear how steeped she is in her parents' record collection. (They were both active in Hollywood during that time, so I'm assuming it's their influence. NB - Her father Caleb did the cinematography for A Woman Under the Influence. +1000 Cali points.)
OK, so that might not be everyone's cup of tea. I've seen 1-star reviews on here deriding this record as pedestrian fluff, and fair game, I suppose. A lot of great records are pedestrian fluff by that reckoning. Carole King's Tapestry, for instance, divides a lot of music lovers. Is a record "Easy Listening" just because it's easy to listen to? Some people prefer mutton to lamb because they like to have something to chew on, and who am I to tell them that's wrong?
It's really about what you grew up with. Put on Simon & Garfunkel - Greatest Hits in a room full of people and you'll immediately separate the teary-eyed from the disinterested. That's the same kind of reaction this record seems to be generating. Maybe some people didn't really grow up with music, and their only touchstones are the Postal Service and the Shins, and so they're disappointed that this record doesn't strike any chords with them. But for those who love Gram Parsons, Loretta Lynn, Diana Ross, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and - oh, let's say the Shangri-Las - then this record is sure to feel warm and familiar.
Part of that is the "sound". Nice touches abound, including choice backing vocals, strings, pedal steel, pianos, etc., but M. Ward's production thankfully doesn't sex it up too much, instead faithfully showcasing the lovely voice of Ms. Deschanel. She sings about as pretty as she looks (and about as smart as she talks), which will be obvious to anyone who has seen Elf or, more recently, her movie-stealing minor turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Her songwriting is also remarkable, partly because it's surprisingly good and partly because it's so very anachronistic. It sounds like she went around collecting songs with a time machine.
A few choice covers polish it off. "You Really Got a Hold On Me" carries on the very California tradition of covering or writing for soul musicians, as per Janis Joplin, Carole King, the Flying Burrito Bros, though it's mostly done in the same vein as M. Ward's weeping-willow cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance". A lilting luau rendiditon of the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" would feel right at home on Ry Cooder's Chicken Skin Music. She curiously closes the record with the Negro spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", a fairly innocuous choice which puts the record to bed.
Overall, this record is just an unexpected treat for fans of Ms. Deschanel. As for the criticism that's going around, like that her stage presence isn't great in youtube videos of her first ever live performances of her own songs, it seems a bit harsh. The "pedestrian fluff" argument also seems a bit off the mark, since to me that would mean doing the kind of Michelle Branch-style acoustic rock that most females with guitars seem doomed to play. On the contrary, Volume One is a smart, disarming record that manages to be sweet without being precious, smart without being self-conscious, and retro without oversimplifying or resorting to gimmicks. 5 stars sounds about right.