She & Him

Christmas Party

by John Paul

16 November 2016

Still more Christmas music from the anachronistically twee odd-couple duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward.
 
cover art

She & Him

Christmas Party

(Columbia)
US: 28 Oct 2016
UK: 28 Oct 2016

With dozens, if not hundreds of Christmas albums flooding the market beginning each October, it begs the question whether or not we need more renditions of the same holiday classics turned in by contemporary pop stars. Given the fickle ephemerality of fame in the 21st century, is it worth the effort to seek out these albums and, in many cases, performers that are as fleeting as the season itself? Can we not be content with the thousands of Christmas-themed recordings already in existence? Do we really need to supplement the tried and true classics with contemporary spins on these same songs?

At the risk of sounding like a real Scrooge, it’s hard to argue in favor of, let alone justify the existence of yet more Christmas recordings each year. So jaded are those turned off by the whole commerciality of the holiday season that the mere mention of Christmas music is enough to send them into frighteningly frothing paroxysms of anti-Christmas rhetoric. Heaven help those who so much as put on a Christmas album before Thanksgiving, let alone the week after Halloween. And yet given the continued commodification of Christmas, there remains a market for all things Christmas, especially when it comes to music. In this, there is and will continue to exist a seemingly never-ending stream of Christmas albums, so we might as well steel our resolve and brave the blizzard of holiday “re-imaginings” that lay ahead.

By now, we all know what we’re getting when it comes to anything Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward put out under their She & Him moniker: breathy, twee vocal performances; reverb-y guitars; and precious arrangements. It’s a sound ideally suited to the pre-fab commercialism that is the Christmas season. Having already issued one Christmas album in 2011’s appropriately-title A Very She & Him Christmas, they return five years later with yet another round of low-key renditions of holiday staples in the form of Christmas Party.

So sleepy are these versions that a more appropriate title may well have been Christmas After Party as the skeletal arrangements and Deschanel’s full-throated vocals lend a somnambulant quality to even the most upbeat of Christmas standards. Who could’ve ever guessed the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late” could ever be considered a sedate ballad that feels more lullaby than a celebration of the season?

And yet She & Him remain so unobtrusively innocuous as to lack even the barest of substance required to offend even the Grinchiest of us. With their studied throwback aesthetic firmly in place, Christmas Party more often than not has the feel of the classic Christmas recordings many of us grew up with, hearing them over and over each year at family gatherings and in nearly every store around the holiday season. “Christmas Memories” in particular proves an effective rendition, with its sparse, jazzy arrangement and Deschanel’s doe-eyed vocals quietly emoting in a manner most effective.

On one of his typically rare lead vocal appearances on a She & Him record, M. Ward’s read of “Run Run Rudolph” manages to transcend the almost comatose delivery he employs while Deschanel cheerfully chirps away behind him. It’s classic juxtaposition of darkness and light that affords a fine balance between the two and helps break up the sameness of the Deschanel-led melancholia that dominates the album.

Continuing to check off their list of requisite holiday staples, the duo picks up essentially where they left off five years prior, opening with “All I Want for Christmas Is You”. A modern standard done so well by Mariah Carey in its original incarnation, the mere fact others have even dared attempt to follow is laughable at best, a sadly inconsequential facsimile at worst. There are certain songs (see: “White Christmas”, “The Christmas Song”, etc.) that really should not be undertaken at this point as no one has yet bettered the likes of Crosby and Cole.

Thankfully, She & Him opt for just this side of traditional holiday songs. There’s nothing so obscure as to raise any eyebrows, nor is there anything as obvious as, say, “Jingle Bells” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (though there’s still time should they opt for a third round of Christmas music…) So what’s left is a mixed bag of songs given the requisite She & Him treatment, all of which prove fairly innocuous and suitable for play in the usual demographically mixed holiday company.

There’s only one outright failure in a particularly cloying rendition of the particularly cloying “Must Be Santa” in which the background singers inexplicably begin listing, in order, presidents along with Santa’s perhaps more well-known reindeer. That they chose to end with “and Hillary Clinton” is a particularly bold move that immediately and unfortunately date stamps the recording, making it something of a seasonal “Dewey Defeats Truman.”  It’s an unintentionally unfortunate lyrical alteration – who the fuck could’ve called a Trump win even at the time of the album’s recording?!–  that will no doubt leave a sour taste in the mouths of many who felt as sure about the final outcome as everyone in the studio must have during the recording session for the track.

Like the Christmas season itself, Christmas Party is pleasant enough in the moment, yet listeners will likely be glad when it’s all over and they can return to their regularly scheduled listening. Those already enamored of the duo’s well-defined aesthetic will find much to like, while those firmly anti-anything Zooey Deschanel will remain vehemently as such. The choice, one of literally thousands, is wholly yours.

Christmas Party

Rating:

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