In the long lineage of actors-turned-pop-songwriters, Zooey Deschanel is one of the few with serious credentials as both. But her image, in many ways, precedes her and prevents any valid discussion of her musical skill. The doe-eyed former Mrs. Ben Gibbard is the tabloid it-girl heartthrob of indie culture, and She & Him, her partnership with classic-pop troubadour M. Ward, has naturally been a bit overshadowed by her celebrity.

But even with Ward's elegant sonic touch, She & Him is ultimately Deschanel's band. Like their first two albums, 'Volume 3' was written entirely by Deschanel herself -- this time during breaks from filming her sitcom 'New Girl.' Ward's arrangements -- horns, old-Hollywood string flourishes, the usual gamut of six-strings -- give the songs a cinematic scope. But Deschanel no longer comes off from like a pretty accessory: More than ever, her songwriting speaks louder than her image.

Well, mostly. Her cutesy vocal style -- slightly twangy, slightly jazzy -- still sounds like it was manufactured in a lab somewhere (Turn on an episode of 'The Voice' or 'American Idol,' and you'll probably find five or six of these kinds of singers in a single episode.) Deschanel sings every line with a cutesy wink -- you can practically feel the wind from her batted eyelashes. On the lethargic Buddy Holly chug of 'Sunday Girl,' in a move that's either unbearably cute or simply unbearable, she randomly switches from English to pouty-lipped French. And for all the album's manicured pop wonders, the playing is often half-assed. The drums, in particular, are messy to the extreme, veering in and out of time.

But when the album works, it really, really works, diving into multi-hued, symphonic tapestries. 'I Could've Been Your Girl' is a striking, shimmering beauty of a pop song, Deschanel's froggy country-pop croon wrapped around Ward's lush 12-strings and a web of crystalline strings. On 'Never Wanted Your Love,' old-country charm meets big-budget fairy-tale score, Deschanel cooing one of her prettiest melodies between Wall of Sound harmonies and strummy asides. Highlights abound, from the funky disco-pop of 'Together' to the Beatles-esque waltz ballad 'Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me' to the stately piano ditty 'London,' which comes off like Death Cab for Twangy.

The name She & Him itself has always suggested a plea for anonymity, pointing toward the songs themselves and not the songwriter. But 'Volume 3' is different -- it's the work of a more confident, inventive artist.

7 out of 10 rating

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