She & Him - A Very She & Him Christmas (Double Six)
October 31, 2011
(Disclaimer: It might seem like a crazy idea, and it isnít likely to land me a job at Pitchfork anytime soon, but I decided to write an honest review that doesnít solely focus on anyoneís now-former husband/acting/manic-pixie-dream-girl status. Okay, thanks. Bye.)
Following in the footsteps of the Beach Boys and Bright Eyes, She & Him have accomplished the apparently difficult task of releasing a respectable Christmas record. To her credit, Zooey Deschanelís optimism knows no bounds as she always provides the most upbeat of outlooks, putting a positive spin on being left on the shelf (2008ís ĎWhy Do You Let Me Stay Here?í) or being ignored (2010ís ĎIn the Suní). When she sings the basking coda of "# Iíll never outgrow the thrill of Christmas Day #" two tracks in, you genuinely believe her. She sounds like sheís having the time of her life.
The thing She & Him do best they do once again on this festive record, released just in time for Halloween. No big overblown choruses, no awful unnecessary warbling, just stripped back, folk-tinged performances of traditional holiday tunes. Nearly every track here is a simple case of acoustic guitar and vocals, and fans of the first record's Phil Spector-style production will be pleased to hear that it sits closer to the simplicity of Volume One than the more layered aesthetic of Volume Two. The countrified images of log fires and arctic graceland snowscapes are done so well that itís difficult to dislike, and letís face it, if you donít like Christmas then you shouldnít be allowed to participate in life. At its loveliest (ĎHave Yourself a Merry Little Christmasí), it should melt even the most partial of Deschanel critics.
Aided by dreamy harmonies on ĎChristmas Dayí and accompanied by cute ukulele on the cover of the Beach Boysí ĎLittle Saint Nickí, the bandís main weapons of choice are M. Wardís twangy guitar solos and Deschanelís soulful voice. Her vocal range is utilised to the maximum on this collection, sounding at her sweetest on the plaintive guitar-picked opener ĎThe Christmas Waltzí, while elsewhere her voice is something you could drown in on closer ĎThe Christmas Songí.
Ward takes the lead on ĎChristmas Wishí and duets on ĎBaby Itís Cold Outsideí, the only possible negative on the record - a speedier version of Deschanelís jazzed-out performance of the same song with Leon Redbone on the Elf soundtrack in 2003. Granted, to merely record a carbon copy would have been an easy way out and itís admirable that they have tried to do something different with the same song (Wardís whistling solo is the highlight). Itís not necessarily bad, it just isnít as good (kind of how the new True Grit isnít quite as good as the old one). But itís only a minor discrepancy in an otherwise flawless performance. Even ĎRockiní Around the Christmas Treeí (which I cringed at when reading the track listing, pre-listen) is a laid-back country affair that skilfully avoids the pop pitfall via Wardís playful guitar solo and honky-tonk piano.
These are all songs weíve heard before and She & Him have never been about doing new things, just doing the old things well. It is a timeless collection that has earned the right to sit amongst Nat King Cole, Vince Guaraldi and Bing Crosby. It wonít of course, given the duo's limited exposure, but in a nutshell these are strong performances of good songs, and you canít ask for more than that. Given my disdain for rating systems and the fact Iím in a good mood after listening to this, letís just give them full marks. Itís Christmas, after all.
words: Ste Grindrod