Wednesday, March 24, 2010

She & Him - Volume Two

She & Him are the pair of indie songsmith M. Ward and actress/singer Zooey Deschanel. Their first record, Volume One, came from out of nowhere in the spring of 2008 to sweep the indie pop landscape off its feet with bittersweet, swooning pop songs tinged with hints of country and folk balladry. Volume Two now comes around to pick up where the duo left off, and there isn't a hitch in its step.

The opening track, "Thieves," recalls Roy Orbison not just lyrically but also in the musical build to its triumphant close. As strings swirl around her, Deschanel's delicate and imperfect voice rises to the songs' climax. The Orbison comparisons are only furthered by the incidental fact that she's singing about one of the legend's favorite topics: crying. It's followed by the lead single, "In the Sun," which glides on a sturdier rock beat and winds up with Ward letting loose some of the most rapid-fire guitar She & Him have featured yet. The contemporariness of "In the Sun" is an exception to the rule, however. She & Him are excellent nostalgists and they return to the '60s sunshine pop with the next tune, appropriately titled, "Don't Look Back." (Even its title recalls the '60s, though it's not a cover of the Temptations' hit of the same name.)

They do cover a few songs on Volume Two, the first of which is a lovely reading of NRBQ's "Ridin' in My Car," which in their hands works as a sweet little duet and fits right into the She & Him aesthetic. The guitar jangle and comforting melody of the original are a perfect choice for She & Him's light, warm brand of comfort-food pop. The other cover is of Skeeter Davis' version of "Gonna Get Along Without You Now," and is equally as successful a reincarnation as its cover-song companion on the album. Where Davis' version covers the heartbreak of the lyric with a mask of nonchalance, She & Him take the opportunity to cover both of their preferred territories, melancholy and jubilance, simultaneously.

What the covers serve to illustrate is the strength of Deschanel's writing. As on Volume One, she is the songwriter of record here and the quality of her writing hasn't been as commented on as her lazy, dreamy voice. Ward certainly does yeoman's work fleshing out the arrangements, and does a great job of music anthropology not unlike T-Bone Burnett's work reconstructing the sounds of old for films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line. Ward's music wouldn't be in service of anything if it weren't for Deschanel's lilting melodies that sound like they've unearthed standards all this time. Tracks like, "Home," "Lingering Still" and "Over It Over Again," break down the cynic's defenses and bask in the sunshine of a radio station endlessly playing new songs as yet unheard from the '60s and '70s. Their first album's cover was entirely apropos for, if they keep going like this, they may come to represent a star forever radiating golden rays of countrified sunshine pop.

She & Him are clearly a throwback act. Their songs ring with the joy and innocence of pop gone by and, for some, the lack of irony in their presentation makes such unfiltered doses a hard pill to swallow. Its understandable. Pop music is always evolving, and there are always nostalgia acts keeping the past alive. From the swing of Brian Setzer to the crooning of Michael Bublé, there's always a market for contemporary resurrection in music. She & Him represent an indie group making the nostalgia trip accessible for another market. As with any nostalgia group, any success they have will be considered novelty or guilty pleasure by some, but for those who do the enjoying, it's bliss.


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