Truth time. This review is two weeks late and way beyond the relevant date for any She & Him fan. So I’m not going to write it for a fan, I’m going to write it for all you people who say Zooey Deschanel can’t sing or that She & Him is boring dreck. Because I think you’re wrong and if you are actually willing to have an open mind about it, you might change your mind.
When I first started listening to Volume Two and pondering the angle for my review I did my usual pre-writing ritual: hours of procrastinating on the internet. I ended up in one of my favourite places: ONTD (Oh No They Didn’t on livejournal.com for those not in the know). I was surprised by the amount of hate being spewed in She & Him’s direction, and started to wonder why. So I’ll take the negative comments posted to this entry, and do my best to prove them wrong.
Complaint # 1: Zooey Deschanel can’t sing/has an awful voice
Although I have made this complaint about many singers I don’t like, it’s really not a fair comment because singing is just vocalizing musical sounds to a rhythm, which is something we are all capable of to varying degrees of success. Saying someone “can’t sing” is really invalid, as any vocalizing human is capable of song, so what we are actually talking about is personal opinion and those varying degrees of success. To me, and this is not coming from my arse, there are three main factors that need to be considered when judging a voice’s quality: pitch, tone, and range. In Zooey’s case I’m going to skip pitch and range because they are too easy to prove and not at all subjective. So lets talk about tone.
There are many aspects to vocal tone, and I could probably do a series of blogs about it which would entertain me much more than it would entertain you. So let’s try and keep this simple. Tone is the depth and timbre of the voice. Some singers have a breathy tone, such as Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes), while others like Chan Marshall (Cat Power) have a dark and rich tone. Zooey Deschanel’s tone is definitely on the darker/throaty side of things and very stylized. In my experience, the darker and more stylized the tone, the more of an “acquired taste” it becomes. Think of Shirley Bassey doing “Goldfinger”. The first time you hear it, it feels so harsh, but that harsh quality is what brings the voice its interest. And makes it great to listen to over and over again.
Now, I’m not saying that Zooey Deschanel is as great, or bombastic, of a singer as Shirley Bassey, but they do have a lot of the same qualities that can make one person love it and another one hate it. They both have a dark and throaty tone with an odd accent to it. Their voices are kind of biting and strident, but underneath that is a smooth musicality flowing from one note to the next. In a live performance you can hear what I’m talking about much more clearly, although it’s partially because of the added vibrato in Zooey’s live voice versus her studio voice (which is another thing I could write a whole blog on). Here’s a performance of “Thieves Among Us”, the first track on Volume Two to demonstrate:
Complaint # 2: The music is average/uninteresting
Too often I find people confuse subtlety with boring. If there aren’t explosions and strong beats we just don’t care. She & Him is about the flow of melody and the interweaving of guitar and voice, which may not be fireworks, but can be exciting in its own way. The magic in She & Him is in the layers and peeling them back. A little moment here, another small touch there. Discovering each little bit and touch is extremely exciting to me, and the many listens it takes to find them all makes it that much more interesting.
The track “Lingering Still” demonstrates my point the best. The mix of instruments is really quite nice and varied: ukulele, acoustic and electric guitar, piano, drums. Overall the song is a jangly romp, but the layers of vocals and instruments give it the depth it needs. M. Ward’s electric guitar flourishes throughout, like constant mini-solos, hold the song together. Then the combo of Zooey’s thick-toned voice and M. Ward’s breathy one on the chorus adds even more interest. Drawing your attention to the enigma of the lyrics “the world’s like a science and I’m like a secret”: where it makes sense, but it doesn’t, so you need to listen to it five times in a row to make sure you’re getting everything.
Complaint # 3: M. Ward is too good for Zooey
Oh whatever. Get over your pompous selves. I would think an M. Ward fan you would be able to enjoy his touches, or at least respect the fact that he sees something great in She & Him, or else he wouldn’t bother doing it.
Complaint # 4: The music is too cutesy and twee
Well, really if you’re listening it is cookie-cutter Phil Specter Wall of Sound inspired 60’s pop with a dash of country. What’s twee and cutesy is Zooey Deschanel’s persona, though again, I’m not sure why because all she does is act a little insane while wearing vintage dresses.
But to really look at this complaint we need to get to the heart of what twee is. At this stage in the game, it is no longer 1998 and it has been a long time since Belle & Sebastian put out a record, so it is fair to say that “twee” is now only used with a negative connotation for things that are too sweet/pretty/cute. Though in this case, I think it is unfair to say that something is bad simply because it is pretty pop music. People dream of writing a great pop song or a pretty melody. Why are we villainizing people who do so? No one says that Jenny Lewis is “twee as fuck”, but is “Trying my Best to Love You” so different than what She & Him are doing? Mixing 60’s pop and country. Done and Done.
You don’t have to like She & Him, but I hope you have at least thought about why you don’t like them (or any artist you villify). The one thing I hope is that you walk away from this with the understanding that it is fair to not like something, but it is best to be able to back your opinion up. You can say you don’t like Zooey Deschanel’s vibrato, or the 60’s doo-wop backup vocals. Or all the jangly “sweet” guitars. But have a backbone and back yourself up! I challenge you to have a brain and an opinion and use it, even if it’s to disagree with me. That’s what makes this world of music such an exciting place. And check out “Lingering Still”. It’s really a beautiful song.