She & Him - A Very She & Him Christmas (Double Six)
October 31, 2011
(Disclaimer: It might seem like a crazy idea, and it isn’t likely to land me a job at Pitchfork anytime soon, but I decided to write an honest review that doesn’t solely focus on anyone’s 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 Deschanel’s optimism knows no bounds as she always provides the most upbeat of outlooks, putting a positive spin on being left on the shelf (2008’s ‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?’) or being ignored (2010’s ‘In the Sun’). When she sings the basking coda of "# I’ll never outgrow the thrill of Christmas Day #" two tracks in, you genuinely believe her. She sounds like she’s 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 it’s difficult to dislike, and let’s face it, if you don’t like Christmas then you shouldn’t be allowed to participate in life. At its loveliest (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’), it should melt even the most partial of Deschanel critics.
Aided by dreamy harmonies on ‘Christmas Day’ and accompanied by cute ukulele on the cover of the Beach Boys’ ‘Little Saint Nick’, the band’s main weapons of choice are M. Ward’s twangy guitar solos and Deschanel’s soulful voice. Her vocal range is utilised to the maximum on this collection, sounding at her sweetest on the plaintive guitar-picked opener ‘The Christmas Waltz’, while elsewhere her voice is something you could drown in on closer ‘The Christmas Song’.
Ward takes the lead on ‘Christmas Wish’ and duets on ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, the only possible negative on the record - a speedier version of Deschanel’s 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 it’s admirable that they have tried to do something different with the same song (Ward’s whistling solo is the highlight). It’s not necessarily bad, it just isn’t as good (kind of how the new True Grit isn’t quite as good as the old one). But it’s only a minor discrepancy in an otherwise flawless performance. Even ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ (which I cringed at when reading the track listing, pre-listen) is a laid-back country affair that skilfully avoids the pop pitfall via Ward’s playful guitar solo and honky-tonk piano.
These are all songs we’ve 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 won’t of course, given the duo's limited exposure, but in a nutshell these are strong performances of good songs, and you can’t ask for more than that. Given my disdain for rating systems and the fact I’m in a good mood after listening to this, let’s just give them full marks. It’s Christmas, after all.
words: Ste Grindrod