Tuesday, November 2, 2010

She & Him: Volume Two (2010)



What do you get if you take AM radio hits of the early '50s through the mid-'60s and drain them of all traces of subversion? The Carpenters, if you're unlucky. Otherwise, you might come up with this. Curiously, I'm finding, that's not really a complaint -- just an observation. She & Him craft a time warp stripped of context that's really about the cheekily oddball personalities who might think recreating AM gold is a great idea.

I do not come to this record with high expectations (hence the most-of-the-year delay in listening to it), but I find myself enjoying it a lot. She & Him's Volume One is an album that a lot of folks I know really love, but I never warmed to it. Although I'm a devoted fan of M. Ward, and usually of Zooey Deschanel's acting (at least in Almost Famous and The Good Girl), the record always seemed empty and bland to me, marred specifically by the somewhat by-the-numbers songwriting and production, the derivative but unconvincing performances, and most of all, Deschanel's unpracticed, hesitant, awkward voice. I see why it's charming but It Don't Charm Me.

To be frank, her voice itself isn't much better on the sequel, but the broad success that met She & Him two years ago has helped her: she comes across as plainly more confident, which makes this easier going. Better yet, Ward's involvement seems far more pronounced -- many of the backing tracks sound like M. Ward twists on established ideas rather than just hobbyist imitations of those ideas. But what really brings makes this a fun piece of work for me is the songcraft and production; Deschanel is leaps and bounds over where she was as a songwriter on the '08 LP, and the pair's assurance lends the songs a divine, irresistible shimmer.

The major convincer for me was the moment I found myself completely falling into "Over It Over Again." Positioned near the end of the album, it comes after several strong cuts, but it marked the moment when I felt my long-held convictions about this act mostly erode. For one thing, more suggestive of the Bangles than the Shirelles, it's a stretch for them, and with its sheer infectiousness and the incisive majesty of Ward's Roger McGuinn-like 12-string doodling, it actually implies something like love for the material, material that's been conceived and executed more carefully than I might have once suspected. "Home," a song that pulls more stunts and feels more complete than the entirety of Volume One, furthers the image with the revent, beautiful, ever-so-mildly tricky feel of the Beach Boys circa late '66. And Deschanel's melodicism -- if not her lyrics -- have visibly reached some level of expertise with "Don't Look Back," a distinctly '60s Laura Nyro homage that could convert or fool an expert in the field.

That's because Deschanel and Ward are experts, in the time they've spent adoring and dissecting the music from which they derive their ideas. But whereas a simple communication of that shared interest might have once been the goal, with much more of the world watching they've at least pressured themselves to raise to an equal artistic ambition with their heroes and heroines. I can say "doo wop-guitar hybrid, uplifting pop carousel, a gradual building to symphonic-pop contained catharsis" and be describing three different songs on the prior release, but here all of those apply to the casually crazed opener "Thieves," which is designed and played with enthuasism and strength, two elements virtually absent in this group's earlier effort. M. Ward fans will actually enjoy stuff like "Me and You," which features his guitar and stylistics bent lovingly for the echo-drenched retro Nashville sound, instead of grinning blankly through it wondering why the fuck. And while I had a soft spot for Zooey's Smokey, it must be said that she succeeds far less equivocally with her dead-ringer Connie Francis on the misty-eyed, undeniable cover of Theresa Brewer and/or Skeeter Davis' "Gonna Get Along without You," while she and Ward both triumph warmly on NRBQ's "Ridin' in My Car," a song which is as perfect a choice for this group as can be fathomed.

The largest victory here comes from M. Ward's production, which has abandoned the homemade generics of She & Him songs past. "Lingering Still" nearly sells itself as exotic pop pap recorded at Western or Gold Star for some Capitol lounge thingo in 1959; it doesn't just try to remind listeners of a Nancy Sinatra 45, it's inches away from being one. As the influences in the songs Deschanel is writing grow more antique and less obvious, as they perversely betray a more consistent voice, so does M. Ward's production acquire an impressive sheen of pop process that allows Brenda Lee bump and grind ("I'm Gonna Make It Better") to sit alongside dusty Dusty chamber pop ("Sing") and Patti Page schmaltz ("Brand New Shoes") without cloying, stuttering, or misdirecting. To boot, it's difficult to imagine Ward managing to find a way to present the communal choral of "Into the Sun" and disorienting prettiness of "If You Can't Sleep" with such aplomb when this was a new group. His accomplishment owes a great deal to the unabashed influence of lush period easy listening, which seems to be turning off a few fans of the slightly more ragged Volume One. Hey, if we're tossing out easy listening-influenced pop music, better let those copies of Pet Sounds, OK Computer, and Another Green World go, eh? Just saying.

Okay, but confession: I still can't quite get past Zooey Deschanel's voice. Look, I love unconventional singing. And Deschanel has improved vastly in the last two years; she knows herself and her limitations better, her voice has more stability and eclecticism, and she generally sounds like the celebration of her popcraft has offered a musical self-esteem boost. A quick listen to "Home" and "Ridin' in My Car" and any of the country-infected numbers (which actually glimpse Linda Ronstadt at times) beside anything from Volume One will illustrate a profound evoluton. But she still has that inescapable feeling and stigma of actor-turned-singer; even if her (correct) suspicion of the appeal of her songs and her modest rolling out of them is inspirational, admirable, that voice still has the thinness of the new.

Maybe that won't last either, but She & Him is hardly about virtuosity in any existing form or skill. What's curious about the youthful reaction to them is that nostalgia is the emotional key of their sound and vision. Regardless of the trad boy-girl lyrics, every one of the songs on both records is, because of the style and production, about a bygone universe that's beginning to bury itself in the memories of our parents and grandparents, a world that film and radio and TV celebrated and brought to life in our youth before it moved on to the expired obsessions and memories of a younger generation. Am I saying She & Him is about nostalgia for nostalgia? I am, and I'm also saying that I am at last beginning to understand why that's fun, emotionally affecting, and even.. gulp... interesting. This isn't a life-changing record, but for me as a onetime She & Him agnostic, it's one of the nicest surprises of 2010.

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