Defending Zooey: A Review of She & Him Volume Two

by Marie Carney on April 9, 2010

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:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jctqH4SMaaA

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.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xj45HUNX8Lk

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Caroline April 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Not necessarily the reason why don’t care for She & Him, but if you notice on the YouTube video, she doesn’t sing with much emotion on her face. You could change the song and keep the visual and it would look like she was singing karaoke, not her own song that she wrote based off of her own experiences. She’s very pretty and all, but it’s ok to not look so cute while your trying to hit a note.

just sayin’…

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Marie Carney April 9, 2010 at 6:09 pm

When I see her doing a live performance it always looks to me like a combination of being scared to death and completely bonkers. The look on her face in the Letterman video is definitely “Hi! I’m bat-shit crazy!”
But yeah. She comes accross as pretty disconnected. But I’m not defending She & Him live. Unless some friendly publiscist would like me to review it… ;)

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Tony Butterworth April 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm

I got half way through writing a review for this album but couldn’t think up enough to say. I love the hit song from the first album but the rest was disappointing. This one has a number of likable songs. I think I have always had a secret thing for Zooey (she seems more real than most hollywood people). The funny thing is that she sings like she acts, very deadpan etc, when she was in that Wizard of Oz thing I thought she was awful but now I realize it’s just her.

I like style in the music here, there are many others that have this style so it’s not unique to her.. I’ve heard M.Wards stuff and I’d rather have this any day of the week.

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violet June 5, 2010 at 1:46 pm

She sounds so nice in that live performance video… why don’t they capture that on record better? It really bugs me they don’t. I think she’s a fantastic songwriter and I don’t mind her voice on record, but ultimately find it frustrating. There are hints at it being great on record, but to me it lacks a satisfying depth, and falters many times in a song, whether a note (as when she sings ‘in my pocket’ in the above clip – forgivable live, but hard to believe she couldn’t do a better take in the studio), sounding out of breath at the end of a line or inconsistent vocal volume. It’s funny you say smooth musicality because that is exactly what I don’t think is there on record – her voice tends to irritate my ears because it jumps roughly in volume and tone, sometimes even on note changes.

I know what you mean about acquired tastes, but sadly I’m finding I like her voice on her albums less as time goes on. I do find her nasal tone a bit annoying but in her live singing, it’s countered by a depth and the lovely sound of her vibrato. On record, it’s too nasal.

I say all this as someone who likes imperfect singers, but the difference for me here is she sounds too trained for it to sound like endearing imperfection that gives a song character.

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violet March 12, 2011 at 7:45 am

Just revisited this post and found it an excellent read once again. I replied to the part about Deschanel’s vocals before, but this time wanted to commend you on your rebuttal to the charge the music is ‘boring’. I’ve come across this quite a few times and find it aggravating, especially when, in the next breath, a writer mentions an ‘innovative’ band who, to my ears, sounds like another cookie-cutter, modern (so-called) ‘indie’ band, which features faux-fragile, gurgling, multitracked vocals yet again, that ringing guitar sound that is overplayed, and calculated deconstructed structure. Yawn. IMO, people like She and Him, Jenny Lewis etc ARE doing something different by sticking to more classic songwriting and putting their own subtle stamp on it. I do feel a lot of listeners just don’t have an ear for this music and are listening for something that fits into the very established indie norms of today, those endless releases with the too-familiar motifs that have stagnated for nearly a decade now but are somehow still touted as original, daring, etc. It’s extremely puzzling to me. I tend to like the artists today who circumvent that and who either are genuinely original (e.g. Broadcast – RIP), or who stick to classic songwriting and let the originality simply be: this particular combination of melody and lyrics are newly born.

I have more respect for artists tapping into rich eras of the past they are passionate about it than I do for those copying the latest indie success story. Of course there are always going to be scenes of contemporary bands influencing each other, but there is a stagnancy in a lot of music that goes beyond this to what I think is strategic, formulaic mimicry.

I admit, I still struggle with Deschanel’s voice – I find it as frustrating as ever, for all the reasons I gave above, but I think the songwriting and arrangements are brilliant. Clever, beautiful, passionately nostalgic (instead of using the past as a lazy crutch)….there are many positive qualities in this music.

I think your description of this as 60s pop meets country is absolutely spot-on. She & Him, as well as things like Jenny Lewis’ solo stuff, could well be classified as alt country, albeit a pretty, soft pop version. That tag doesn’t seem to be used as much these days, and/or the pretty, feminine version of it doesn’t seem to trigger the label, or perhaps it’s the simultaneous 60s bubblegum pop influence that stops it being thought of as alt country. I do think the path Deschanel has forged is quite unique – peppy, upbeat, Nancy Sinatra-style 60s female pop mixed with the twangy, introspective, humble sounds of alt country. She deserves credit for that.

Of course this won’t be a lot of people’s cup of tea, and I’m not even going to say they are missing out – taste is so subjective. But what I do protest are the knowing accusations leveled at this band and their fans, that it’s somehow disposable and lesser, whose fans are sucked in by a supposedly faux-indie pretty actress (I’m not a huge fan of her movie career, I must say). My counter-suggestion is that those who can’t hear the songwriting skill here for lovely arrangements and catchy, pretty melodies perhaps have had their listening skills atrophied by one too many twitchy, post-punk remnants with drunken, semi-emo vocals, or one too many fragile female indie ‘folk’ ballads with monotone melodies, multi-tracked vocals, and poseurish fragility.

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