Friday, May 20, 2011

She & Him :: Volume Two

By Jon Stone | @jwstone

(An alternate title here might be: "She & Him: The Only Essay You'll Read that Makes Zooey Deschanel into a Pioneer for Sexual Politics in Music.")

Before I knew who she was, I heard Zooey Deschanel sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" in what I think is the best scene in Will Ferrell's Elf. It kind of comes out of nowhere. She plays this grumpy, brooding, alterna-blonde who is, all of a sudden, in the shower singing her heart out. It's a sweet and then hilarious moment and reveals, I think, Deschanel underneath the character that she plays and in doing so creates an expectations paradox for those of us who were, immediately, fans.

Let me try and explain what I mean...

That paradox is deep-seated in what I see as our typical expectations of what the modern female pop artist looks and sounds like. Post-WWII America and the sexual revolution that followed created an environment where, for the first time, female pop stars began to find a more welcome place as independent artists in the music industry. As such, these artists had to figure out ways to prove themselves -- to establish their artistic credibility -- and what then was a necessary attitude for survival has now become a fairly evident tradition.  That "proof" as it existed then and now takes various shapes, from up-front sexuality, to brash politicization,  and from a laid back devil-may-care posturing to the ever-popular, pissed-off, angsty cynic. And while surely all female artists don't fit into these categories, these, I think, have become the norms. (I'm choosing not to site specific examples here -- but I'm sure you can easily think of artists who fit one or several of the categories. You'll also likely think of exceptions. Drop a comment below with a response to my argument here -- I'd love to get some responses to these ideas).

With this in mind, I've thought a lot about people's reactions to She & Him. Almost universally people like it, but not without some kind of asterisk. "It's good but not great" or "It took me some time, but eventually, I really started to like it." My reaction was no different. In fact, as you'll read below, I'm still in that place with this newest record. But as I listened to both records several times over the last few days, a possible reason for the asterisk occurred to me. I think when Volume One came out, we were all expecting a Jenny Lewis and M. Ward record. We knew and were comfortable with that scene -- with the Jenny Lewis musical trope of chip-on-my-shoulder cynicism. Lewis's Rabbit Fur Coat (w/ the phenomenal Watson Twins) remains one of my favorites, and had come out a few years earlier and like Deschanel's Elf character, Lewis broods and smolders like a cigarette. I like that stuff; I'm used to that stuff. She & Him are not that stuff. Thus the paradox.

Volume One entered this modern musical discourse in opposition and even negation to these norms. It wasn't just different musically, it was different ideologically. Trying to put my finger this difference, it dawned on me that She & Him records are completely devoid of cynicism. I mean, their sunniness is indisputable, but if you listen to the songs it's more than sunniness -- there is a refusal on these records to fulfill the norms I talk about above. Sure, a She & Him record is a bit like tuning into a golden (really golden) oldies station and not changing the channel for an hour (something I never do), but I think there is actually something semi-revolutionary going on here. Zooey (with Matt) delivers her unabashedly sunny records without self-consciousness, without the now-standard "indie" guile, indeed, with (gasp) earnestness.

If you think about it, especially recently, it is this earnestness that we find so appealing and endearing in our male artist counterparts. Bon Iver is the easiest example to point to here, but think even of the difference between M. Ward and his often-partner Connor Oberst. Ward comes at his work in an almost quiet and humble way, seeking in his now-trademark way, to both make great music and preserve parts of a historical tradition that he identifies with. Oberst tries to do a similar thing, but is less successful in the end, I think, because of his inability to not make the records about him and his cynicism. She & Him operate in an nearly-analogous, history-preserving, earnest arena. We've had female artists such as Amy Winehouse do this in the past, but She & Him do it with unrelenting class.

All that said, this is supposed to be a review of the new record, Volume Two, and honestly, I don't think it is quite as successful as its predecessor.  The song writing isn't as strong and consistent, and though it maintains this earnestness that I am so interested in, it doesn't really do it in new or interesting ways. Don't get me wrong, it is  a good record -- very enjoyable (sound a bit like what I was talking about above?) but it is less a volume 2 and more a part 2 -- the second half of the first record, or even, occasionally, the unreleased b-sides that didn't quite make the record (see "Over It Over Again"). There are exceptions to this critique -- the single "In the Sun" (see above) is interesting and fun, but maybe not much beyond Volume One's "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here." Also, I quite like the duet "Ridin' in My Car (NRBQ)." The only real departure that I hear on the new record is the last song "If You Can't Sleep" a reverby, a cappella tune that kind of rides the ethereal space beyond the "sun." But then again, it is very similar to the last song on Part One, the inventive cover of the traditional "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." Both give us hints toward what we can look forward to (I hope) in the future of this collaboration.

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