She and Him

Volume One

(Merge; 2008)

By Jessica Faulds | 12 May 2008

You can usually tell something about an album by where it situates itself in your anatomy. Some records nestle themselves up to an aorta, some percolate through the intraparietal sulcus, and others sink into the dankest, darkest tissues of the gut. The sediment of any given album may swirl loosely through various bodily canals for a time, brushing up against nerve endings and stimulating epinephrine the way new albums and giant-blue-eyed actress crushes tend to do, but as a collection of songs becomes familiar, it settles and clusters and hardens into a permanent deposit, generally next to some metaphorically rich organ. Heart. Mind. Loins. After several listens, She & Him’s debut album has yet to solidify, but at least it has chosen an associate appendage. Volume One sits on the tip of my tongue.
Because it sounds just like—-and it reminds me of—and the production style– She’s voice– Him’s guitar– it’s all just so… old, you know what I mean? Neither do I, possibly because Volume One is nostalgic in a way that seems impossible to articulate, running the gamut of genres from at least three decades so that the average person born in the 80s with only a cursory knowledge of anything that happened before 1990 and who bought into the adolescent belief that AM radio was desperately uncool (i.e. me) won’t be properly equipped to untangle the nostalgic from the flat-out derivative. But even if you can’t tell the Carly Simon-ish from the Patsy Cline-esque, and can’t figure out whether M. Ward is playing a ’50s rhythm and blues riff or a ’60s pop jangle, you will still generally know a rehash when you hear one.

The bad news first, then: there’s a lot of rehashing on this album. According to Mark Abraham (you know, the guy who writes the Retconning features that makes you feel so inferior about the non-rock portion of your record collection), the currently approved method for appropriating another decade’s musical aesthetic follows a formula: “hint at the old, lock a thunderous groove under it, rotate and swivel.” Volume One chooses to forego the thunderous beats, which is all right with me, but its additional abandonment of the rotate-and-swivel means I have to use a gross descriptor—that is, “retro”—without getting to hyphenate it to any cooler qualifiers. It’s just retro-retro. This is an album that tries to sneak into the canon of ’60s (and ’50s and ’70s) classics and camouflage, rather than searching for new ways to fit the classic aesthetic into the 21st century. And if you’re going to write music that sounds like the ’60s (and ’50s and ’70s) but survives in 2008, then you’d better write the best songs the ’60s (and ’50s and ’70s) have to offer. Naturally, She & Him can’t. Who can? (A: David Bowie-Ed.)

Everything I’ve written above sounds pretty bad, and maybe it’s even exaggeratedly harsh considering that when you’ve got She & Him playing on your car stereo with the windows down and your sunglasses on, they’re pretty not bad at all. Perhaps I’m only sowing the seeds of doubt into your enjoyment of Volume One because it’s so likely that you will enjoy it. The songs may not be best-of-genre material, but there are lots of breezy melodies and catchy guitar riffs, and it’s a relief to know that the lyrics are just about love, and that’s it. These songs aren’t going to keep you up at night, and considering that they keep popping up next to Kingdom Shore on shuffle, thank God. As Boogz (you know, the guy who manages to write reviews without acting like an embittered surgeon) put it, “The She & Him album makes me want to hug my girlfriend and bake cookies or something.” And if you’re just looking for a summer album, that’s probably all you really need to know.

Like singer Zooey Deschanel, Volume One is endearing and unpretentious. Perhaps the best thing about it is that it seems to be the work of someone who just loves to sing. Unfortunately, given Deschanel’s pre-assembled fame, she hasn’t had time to languish in obscurity and get through that oh-I-just-really-like-singing stage and find her own footing out of the public eye. The result is that while she may love to sing “You Really Got A Hold On Me”, most of us don’t really need to hear it. She’s a good songwriter, but as her inability to rise above her influences indicates, she’s a new songwriter, mature enough as a person to realize that she’s not going to reinvent music, but not mature enough as a musician to realize that she’s still got to try to reinvent it just a little. By Volume Two (but please, let them name it something other than Volume Two) She & Him will probably have shaken off some of their more blatant nostalgic baggage and found their own idiosyncracies. I’m betting that even if their next record doesn’t find its way to my heart, I’ll at least be able to put a finger on it.

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