She & Him - Volume Two
released 5 April 2010 on Double Six
Zooey Deschanel is an extremely beguiling character. As an actress, she seems to portray the sort of girl that’s incredibly easy to fall in love with and has wide eyes that can look right through you. Witness her as dreamy and unfathomable Summer Finn in Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer and this phenomenon will surely become apparent to you too. However, this may be simply an example of the phenomenon known as Manic Pixie Dream Girl,
whereby film and literature personas are specifically tailored to appeal to young men. I’m a young man, I’m being manipulated and I’m not sure I care.
Anyway, the more astute amongst you will have noticed this is meant to be an album review rather than a thesis on stars of the small screen. In some ways, to bring up Deschanel’s career as an actress at the very beginning of this article is unfair; She & Him’s début album, Volume One, was an extremely accomplished record of retro-pop, easy to warm to and hard to forget. The fact that Deschanel competently handled lead vocals and wrote the majority of the songs earned her the right to have She & Him considered a serious band in their own right rather than a vanity project. She succeeded where many before her have failed miserably and removed any doubts over her capabilities with aplomb.
On the other hand, to mention Deschanel’s day job is very apt when discussing her music. To an extent, all lead singers are actors playing a part in their aim to entertain, yet Deschanel seems to display this more nakedly than most, as well she might given her chosen profession. In fact, it appears that Volume Two could well be the first aural manifestation of Manic Pixie Dream Girl; the melodies are sugar-sweet, there are addictive hooks in abundance but Deschanel’s voice takes centre stage. Her vocal range is perhaps too limited to take on some of the notes she gamely attempts, but the straining to reach those extremes, the slight cracks in her voice (often reminiscent of PJ Harvey or Björk), the enthusiasm and her resoluteness in dealing with some of the in-song protagonists could well have been created to appeal to young men. I’m a young man, I’m being manipulated, and I’m not sure I’m going to fall for it this time.
In She & Him, the Deschanel persona is one of a down-home good-old American country gal, who everyone likes and wishes well. Volume Two often conjures an image of an awkward frontwoman shuffling from side to side whilst nervously clutching the hem of a blue-checked cotton dress. If that picture doesn’t work for you, the other comparison that springs to mind is that of Sookie Stackhouse in the HBO seriesTrue Blood - the girl that everybody loves and no-one quite understands. This act of the ingénue is cultivated by songs of regret, loss and defiance that are perky, full of great harmonising backing vocals and above all, cute. If you think this could get pretty wearing over an entire album, then you’d be correct.
Ironically, repeated listens to Volume Two reveal that the real star of the show is Deschanel’s co-conspirator, M Ward. His thoughtful, considered and imaginative production prevents the album becoming an amorphous sickly mass and when he lends his reedy vocals to Ridin’ In My Car, the welcome change in tone (as well as the Phil Spector-style heavy echo of the percussion) leads to the best song of the collection.
Where Volume One was strongest was simply the quality of the songs (try getting Why Do You Let Me Stay Here? out of your head in a hurry), yet there’s something sadly lacking about Volume Two, and what previously sounded like finely-crafted homage is now often more like impotent pastiche. It certainly has its moments though, the juxtaposition of simple piano, pop hooks and slide guitar makes In the Suneminently likeable, Lingering Still has a pleasing semi-Hawaiian sound, and the bouncy cover of Skeeter Davis’ Gonna Get Along Without You Now is more infectious than the bubonic plague in a 14th Century sewer.
Deschanel clearly knows how to write a song, and it would appear she’s a disciple of The Beatles - witness the chord changes on Over It Over Again or the intro to Don’t Look Back, which is similar to The Beatles’ own In My Life. Unfortunately, the often banal and occasionally clunky lyrics (“running away from you is like running a business” - ouch) mean that She & Him have a tendency to come across like an inferior Rilo Kiley circa More Adventurous. M Ward’s sweet pedal steel and astute instrument choice can only support Volume Two so far, and it’s thanks to him that the album doesn’t end up sounding like the cast-offs from the soundtrack of Grease. Authenticity isn’t the all-encompassing core of good songwriting that some critics may have you believe, but on the evidence of Volume Two, She & Him are too often on autopilot and too intent on playing a part.