[23 March 2010]
She is Zooey Deschanel, the indie-film dream-girl of ice-blue eyes and sardonic manner. Him is M. Ward, the singer-songwriter with the sepia-toned voice whose old-timey tunes sound like they ought to be broadcast through a phonograph cylinder. Together they created one the most delightfully unexpected musical treats of 2008, a relic of mellow ‘70s AM gold, blending rich girl group harmonies and with fragile Laurel Canyon folk-pop. What looked like yet another movie star vanity record sounded instead like a lost classic by Carly Simon or Carole King. Deschanel’s untrained voice was pretty and blithe, straightforward and unpretentious, yet little distant and mysterious. The songs on Volume One didn’t carry a lot of emotional charge—they sort of added up to a long, breezy sigh—but there was so much hazy prettiness in Ward’s Spector-like arrangements and so much warmth in Deschanel’s performance that it didn’t matter. The record was the soft summer wind that always carries traces of nostalgia and regret.
Now they’re releasing Volume Two, and I can’t help but wonder whether we need another one of these things. It’s certainly not a bad record—to the contrary, it’s bright and tender and catchy. But “Volume Two” is the right name—it plays like the second half of a double album that ought to have been squeezed onto one disc. I’m okay with a little more of the same—played in sequence on a blurry Sunday morning these albums give you time to make breakfast, do the dishes and half-heartedly fill out a crossword puzzle while you let your hangover fade. But enough already—once the vintage charm wears off, this sound starts to feel a little bit thin.
Ward has an unmatched ear for abandoned 20th century musical forms, and the ease with which he refurbishes late ‘60s/early ‘70s girl-pop is almost eerie. It’s certainly impressive, but after a few listens you start to wonder whether he might not be doing Deschanel’s songs a disservice. She & Him sometimes feels less like a band than an idea for a band, executed with astonishing precision. All the rough edges have been filed away. How about an angry song, or at least a fast one? Or a big weepy ballad? The She & Him aesthetic is a little too tasteful for such messy emotions—everything has to be so understated and pleasant. It’s a weird thing to say about a record that sounds so organic and warmly textured, but I’ll be damned if there aren’t moments when it starts to feel a little processed and formulaic, particularly when viewed in its context as a second record of the exact same stuff.
Don’t get the wrong idea—I like the way the record sounds. But two albums of this material is plenty. Deschanel has a voice of rare self-possession and grace and an easy way with a wry lyric—Ward is one of the most talented producers, songwriters and musicians in the indie rock today. Their vision is charming and lovely and idiosyncratic, but their slavish devotion to their mission statement is starting to feel like an anchor on their talent. When you get this good at something, when you make it look this easy, that usually means it’s time to try something new.