I suppose I should let Zooey Deschanel go by now. I was so young at the time, a mumbling, shy teenager with a crappy haircut (admittedly, the hair hasn’t improved much) when I first developed a bit of a pathetic fancy for those big blue eyes of hers – I can’t say my admiration of her looks hasn’t dimmed, admittedly (and somewhat shallowly), but I’ve grown wary of her acting ability. Being typecast is something some, if not most, actors attempt to avoid, yet Zooey thrives on playing what’s referred to in critical circles as the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ role – a bit kooky, a bit insane, and just a tad an absolute fiction of a person, one who exists in the minds of fevered male youth everywhere. Her purpose is to bring the lead male out of his emotional shell, to embrace life, to seize the day (and, presumably, to act as therapist and counsellor and tissue) – to be, in effect, a nothing of a person but a blank canvas who’s just waiting for a chance to listen to all the moaning and despairing and general torment of the soul that characterises the most privileged demographic group in history, the Young White Western Man of the 21st Century.
So – as her roles keep her locked up in a safe little box, a box that doesn’t allow too much range (even (500) Days of Summer, whilst specifically a film about how real life doesn’t conform to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype, was hardly a stretch), I’m in danger of losing sight of Zooey Deschanel, Actress. All I will have left is Zooey Deschanel, Attractive Celebrity. Being left with that would just be unfair to her as an individual, considering how lovely she is an all – though let’s not concentrate on how I know this, or how I met her, or how her height disappointed me, or how her strapless dress was perhaps a brave choice for the evening but she rocked it admirably – let’s leave that for now. OK? OK. What we’re talking about today is She & Him’s Volume 2, the second album from the musical collaboration between Zooey and folk singer-songwriter M. Ward. Their first, the aptly-titled Volume 1, was an excellent stab at breathing new air into 60s country-folk, and Volume 2 is a further step forward. What it also does is reaffirm, for little old neurotic me, that Zooey Deschanel is a very ably-talented singer and songwriter. Zooey Deschanel, Artist, if you will.
Halfway through first track ‘Thieves’ and the blueprints from Volume 1 are still there – gentle drumbeats, an electric guitar-line with a lovely country twang, and Zooey’s lilting voice that’s as sweet as a glass of freshly-squeezed fruit juice (I’m an orange man, myself, but other fruits such as banana or kiwi would be acceptable alternatives). It can feel a bit like well-trodden territory, but the compositions are just accomplished enough to avoid this (though, of course, one has to ask how long this formula – and it is a formula – can keep working).
M. Ward still stays mostly in the background, leaving the spotlight to his leading lady, except for a notable appearance on a cover of NRBQ’s ‘Ridin’ In My Car’, here reinterpreted as a duet. The other cover here, the Milton Kellem-penned standard ‘Gonna Get Along Without You Now’, also manages to be reinterpreted in such a way that’s not hugely different to the more memorable versions by singers like Skeeter Davis – things are shifted around only slightly to achieve that She & Him vibe. Zooey’s recurring lyrical theme here is of losing or dumping a man but being the happier for it, so the background hums and ahs on this cover totally fit between the ballad to Californian lovin’ that is ‘Home’ and the filled-with-longing ‘ba-da-da-dum’ chorus on ‘Me and You’.
‘In The Sun’, also a single, fizzes and bumps along thanks to Ward letting his guitar do a little bit more work than on Volume 1 – I think it can be safely said that he’s let himself show a little bit more here. Despite mentioning earlier that, yes, he’s still largely a background figure, the actual music that carries Zooey’s lyrics so delicately is still mostly his work, and there are some more flourishes, a few more touches of individual energy that come peeping through. He’s got a very distinctive husk of a voice, and it would be nice if he could show us a bit more, but, as it is, Zooey still does well on her own. You can hear the smile on her face when she sings, “why do I always want to sock it to you hard?” on ‘Over and Over Again’ – she plays the role of the strong-willed woman admirably, and these are most determinedly not laments. At its heart this album is about sassiness.
I suppose the main lesson to be learned from She & Him is that soft rock isn’t a terrible sin. Sure, it’s repetitive, but when the basic framework is so enchanting (especially on closer ‘If You Can’t Sleep’, which has a fair shout at being the most beautiful lullabies you’ll hear this year). There’s something comforting about familiarity, and here that comfort comes in spades.
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