When it comes to pop cultural commentary, the internet does a spectacular job of making choirs out of disparate solo voices. Professionals and amateurs alike praise and ridicule, in blaring unison, seconds after a TV episode airs, a song drops, or a movie premieres. We, the chatterers within these electronic ones and zeros, live to recommend challenging cable shows, to endorse promising new bands, to champion offbeat indie films. This blog’s name is a nod at this very kind of enthusiasm. But nothing matches the relish we take in spewing bile at formulaic sitcoms, in dismissing shallow pop artists, in tearing down the latest tent-pole summer blockbusters.
Sadly, we tend to hate louder than we love. Sadder still, the critical wires sometimes get crossed and we take offense at inoffensive, if not undeserving, targets. Take, for example, the actress Zooey Deschanel, who has long been a dartboard by virtue of being at worst mildly irritating (that iPhone ad) and at best genuinely endearing ((500) Days of Summer and, as many critics have recently noted, her sitcom The New Girl). There’s more than a hint of misogyny in the tenor of the backlash, for sure. But most of the animosity results when Deschanel’s vibrancy clashes with the stale, insufferable cynicism of the commentariat. (See also: Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow. Both, coincidentally, are also capable singers.)
She & Him, Deschanel’s musical collaboration with country-folk artist M. Ward, has not only managed to avoid an angry onslaught, but its two previous LPs (and a pleasant, if slight, Christmas album) have been met with exactly the right amount of mixed-to-mild praise. This seems all the more remarkable since, on the surface, She & Him could have easily been blasted as a vanity project and Deschanel an indie-scene interloper.
Only Deschanel, She & Him’s primary songwriter, has a striking aptitude for remaking the British girl group sound of artists such as Lulu, Petula Clark, and Dusty Springfield. For his part as an arranger, Ward ducks the spotlight and instead completes the deal, making She & Him’s songs pitch-perfect sonic throwbacks to the Swinging Sixties and the era’s gleaming AM-radio pop. The collaboration works so well because their ambition is modest and their execution is, for the most part, flawless.
If I haven’t yet addressed the subject of this review, the new She & Him release Volume 3, it’s because little about it warrants a fresh perspective. She & Him’s albums are purposefully generic: their iterative titles acknowledge as much. Make a playlist of Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 and let them shuffle through your speakers. If you can pinpoint any stylistic shifts or noticeable differences in quality, then you’re a sharper listener than me. What you will notice, though, is Deschanel’s nondescript singing voice, which apes a spectrum of timbres and styles from Magnetic Fields’ vocalist Shirley Simms to early Debbie Harry (which is most obvious on “Together,” even though Volume 3 features a cover of Blondie’s “Sunday Girl”).
Deschanel is at her finest as a songwriter on Volume 3’s blithe and springy original tracks. “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” “Never Wanted Your Love,” and “I Could’ve Been Your Girl” can’t equal the brilliance of the album’s three classic covers (the aforementioned Blondie song, the Harry Noble standard “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” and the Brill Building gem “Baby”), but their shortfalls are surprisingly negligible. Of the slower numbers, only “London” and “Shadow of Love,” two hushed and lovely dirges, escape from being the background soundtrack of a corner Starbucks.
What you hear on your first spin of Volume 3 is what you get each time you return to it – immediate, if fleeting and shallow, pleasure. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward continue to prove She & Him is more than mere novelty. Now we just need some richness and depth. That hurdle needn’t be insurmountable. It could happen on Volume 4. I hold out hope. After all, I’m no cynic. [C+]
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