The Retro Rebellion of She & Him

Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward offer more sweet optimism—and why not?

Peter Newman, whose CV includes The Squid and the Whale and a 1996 Dennis Hopper movie called Space Truckers, once told Variety that one of the biggest problems in producing Penelope Spheeris's postponed Janis Joplin biopic was finding either an actress who could sing or a singer who could act. First, they had Pink, who later left the project because of "scheduling conflicts," adding, "They're trying to turn it into some circus pop contest—'who's the 'it' girl who wants to play Janis?' "

They settled on Zooey Deschanel, a 30-year-old actress who sings. In movies, she often plays spacey, desirable girls oblivious to everyone else's rules of attraction (which, by some logic, only makes her characters more attractive). In the Times last year, A.O. Scott described her romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer as having a "very mild sexual vibe," wisely sidestepping a discussion about the appeal of tights and ruffled dresses. (Of all the American Girl dolls, Deschanel looks most like Emily, "Molly's English Friend," who wears a cherry-blossom-print dress and "opens up a whole world of play with authentic styles from the World War II era.") A few years back, she started sharing her homemade demos with the indie-folk singer M. Ward, who convinced her to collaborate on a record: She & Him's Volume One. Success. Now, Volume Two.

She & Him's music is ostensibly the sonic incarnation of Deschanel's look—Phil Spector, '50s and '60s country, white-washed doo-wop, light musical theater. Tympani and la-la-la. "I love Gigi, Singin' in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, and The Sound of Music," Deschanel told BlackBook recently. "That's kind of how I like to make people feel with music. It's the way the Beach Boys make you feel. They share sweet optimism that makes me excited to be alive."

This all sounds like a vacation for M. Ward—a chance to be creative in an environment where his ego isn't as prominently displayed as on his solo records. For Deschanel, though, it seems like a matter of personal expression, a way for her to write her own lines and make her own sets—things she can't do when she's acting. I don't begrudge either party their fantasies or "sweet optimism," nor do I much mind Volume Two. It's more faithful to their influences and more self-conscious about projecting an image than its predecessor; the arrangements are more elaborate without losing that grainy, homespun feel. Deschanel's voice isn't as cute as I thought it'd be, which saves some of her lyrics: "I had some brand-new shoes/They were all red, but they gave me the blues" is an old-timey turn that lacks old-timey wit, while the chronology of "Well, all right, it's OK, we all get the slip sometimes every day" is Stevie Wonder–level nonsense.

The interesting thing, if you care about "retro culture," is that She & Him are taking what was once mass-market pop music and repackaging it as something "indie" or alternative. Their statement of rebellion is to reject everything made after the early '70s. But lots of bands have done this, and done it with more creativity—Belle & Sebastian, say, or the Magnetic Fields.

I also find it weird that Deschanel and Ward talk about how comfortably they got along, because there's something essentially cold about Volume Two. The happy songs aren't happy, and the sad songs aren't sad: When they cover Skeeter Davis, they leave out the sass; when they copy the Ronettes or the Crystals, they leave out the teenage throb; when they reach for the Beach Boys, their professionalism eclipses their innocence. What's left is a debate about the nature and definition of the human soul, how many more albums they'll put out, and how weird it would've been to see Zooey Deschanel playing Janis Joplin.

She & Him play Bowery BallroomMarch 29 and 30

 
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