She & Him – Volume 3
Merge Records 2013
It’s hard to tell whether She & Him have moved past the point of novelty or remain tarnished by it. On the one hand, the group’s collection of records has had nary a “bad” song on it. Forgettable, at times? Yes. Uninspiring, at others? Almost certainly, but throughout Volume 1 and Volume 2 and now Volume 3 the pair have maintained a reliable pop professionalism that has occasionally created sparks of black-and-white brilliance, an unerring portrait of a time when “I could’ve been your girl / you could’ve been my four-leaf clover,” was all that was needed for one starry-eyed girl to tell the heartbreaker in his varsity jacket. Few artists have recreated (and, arguably, mastered) a specific sound as lovingly as She & Him. The playful pop instincts of the Beach Boys rub shoulders with the wistfulness of ‘60s girl groups; doo-wop meshes imperceptibly with Brill Building melodies and hints of Nancy Sinatra sass; sweeping Phil Spector symphonics unfurl like a velvety blanket next to carefree fingerpicking and aw-shucks guitar pop. At their best, She & Him transport you to somewhere else, where Zooey Deschanel isn’t a star and M. Ward is just the man behind the curtain, another in a long line of faceless studio hired hands. It’s a place where the magic is in the simplicity of the songs and the everyday romance they conjure, effortlessly and innocently. But, shit – a Christmas album? And now Volume 3, a record so tightly and painstakingly circumscribed by its period sounds and M. Ward’s polite production that it loses any mild sense of personality She & Him have managed to acquire in the past few years, just at a time when Deschanel should be staking her own artistic identity loudly and firmly.
Here, M. Ward indeed becomes that man behind the curtain, his signature blues touch only a faint whisper among the carefully manicured jazz inflections and retro indie pop tailor-made for a summer Sunday – preferably spent down at the local soda fountain. When things are spiced up, as on the faux-disco of “Together” or on the rumbling cover of Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” it barely registers a notch above the rest of Volume 3’s flawlessly produced, entirely inoffensive sounds, lest Ward disturb the neighbors. Previous records reveled in these same sounds, true, yet they did it with some vigor, a certain punchiness and spice that kept them bouncing around in your head far longer than they rightfully should have. Volume 3 prefers to keep the focus on Deschanel, and while the melodies remain, they too often seem like just another part of the tapestry, not the selling point. Yet where Volume 3 might have been picked up accordingly by a more prominent performance by Deschanel, the singer remains just as suppressed by the strict adherence to this genre exercise as Ward. Deschanel has never had trouble sounding wounded, but her voice here rarely jumps out at you – she prefers to just play the role rather than live it. Even when she’s obviously having fun, as she does on the whimsical “Sunday Girl” or the quintessential torch song (“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”), it inevitably feels rote, a certain tastefulness that is pretty and nostalgic, yet largely uninteresting.
It’s unclear whether this is a result of Ward’s unusually subdued production or Deschanel’s own limitations as a songwriter, but this is where She & Him’s self-imposed restraints tend to sabotage their artistic growth. Deschanel writes fine pop songs, but at this point, the tired ‘50s tropes and Grease-styled romantic calamities unfairly handicap her palette and diminish her talents. As a result, Volume 3 can’t flourish under the force of her considerable personality or Ward’s craftsmanship, because the latter has been deadened and the former is unwilling to break the illusion. Until one or the other makes a change, it seems doubtful that She & Him will ever become more than a particularly well-credentialed homage.
While I was going about my life recently, sipping fair-trade coffee, reading Yelp! reviews of the latest artisan food truck in my neighborhood and listening to the dulcet tones of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s latest, a tragedy befell my otherwise perfectly acceptable and entirely ordinary day. Horror of horrors, my speakers’ power supply failed. Forced to listen to the rest of Volume 3 on my laptop, a poorly treated device at best, I had an epiphany; perhaps this is how She & Him were always meant to be enjoyed. Tinny, occasionally distorted, as if I was hijacking an AM signal under my bed sheets while trying not to wake my parents, who very much believe in a young boy getting a good’s night rest. Alas, this remains the biggest problem with She & Him, a band more than capable of writing a great tune that nevertheless has a hard time engaging in anything resembling forward progress: no matter how many steps they take, you’re almost always guaranteed to end up with them, at the end of it all, right where they started.
With fourteen songs 11 Deschanel originals and three covers Volume 3 is an effortlessly effervescent, bleached-in-the-sun pop record. The album features some of the most dynamic, complex songs Deschanel has ever written, allowing for tempo shifts, disco grooves, string arrangements on multiple tracks, and horn flourishes that perfectly suit the She & Him sound. Produced by M. Ward and recorded in LA, Portland, and New York City, Volume 3 features guest contributions from NRBQ's Joey Spampinato, Mike Watt, Tilly and the Wall, Pierre de Reeder from Rilo Kiley, and Tom Hagerman from Devotchka.