Review by C.J. Bunce
Renaissance gal Zooey Deschanel seems to be at the top of her game in many respects. She has headlined major motion pictures, such as Jon Favreau’s Elf and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, she’s the star of the funniest sitcom on TV this year, The New Girl, and she has cut several albums with Portland singer-songwriter M. Ward in her group She & Him. With their new album, A Very She & Him Christmas, you won’t be alone if you think you’re listening to old vinyl LPs of excerpts from the 1950s and 1960s, of tunes and voicings evoking The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, Patsy Cline and Dusty Springfield, backed up by a solid Willie Nelson-inspired guitar. It’s not every day you listen to an album four times in a row, trying to determine who sang that song before, who this singer seems to sound just like, and wondering if you’ve just heard this album somewhere before.
With Christmas albums, either you want something new, or more likely, you’re after that feel of the familiar, nostalgic tune that you’ve heard so many times over the years that you have the lyrics committed to memory. With A Very She & Him Christmas, you get not only nostalgia, you get some 1950s rock, some Hawaiian vibes, some beach music, some lounge/1960s mod, most soulful, a few cheery, and all ultimately sentimental and sweetly sung. Look for some nice acoustic walking guitar lines, as well as some cool reverb electric guitar a la Del Shannon’s Runaway. Don’t look for a lot of Deschanel’s typical layered alto, leathery smooth voice. It still is a sophisticated sound, but more adherence is given to classic renditions of these mostly familiar songs than improvising or toying with the classics.
Expect little of the often labeled “cutesy Zooey Deschanel”–here instead is a more mature Dusty Springfield style of emoting, some Patsy Cline-inspired sounds mixed with some Karen Carpenter-esque aching loneliness and all with a Mama Cass Eliot level of a Deschanel’s full volumed voice.
This is a great addition to your Christmas CD collection or iPod. The album cover says it all, with its That Thing You Do retro feel. Some highlights of the recordings on A Very She & Him Christmas include:
1. The Christmas Waltz. A lazy and quirky version of a classic that feels like Deschanel is stuck inside on a wintry day, passing away the hours, looking out on the world she is missing.
2. Christmas Day. A hip and up-tempo ice 1950s electric guitar, breezy, California Christmas. An unfamiliar but nice tune, that feels a bit like it could have been written by George Harrison while singing with the Travelling Wilburys.
3. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Melancholy and melancholy. Almost a creepy dark , soulful vibe. Will have you wondering if you left a Carpenters album in the stereo.
4. I’ll be Home for Christmas. Tinny and tinselly classic rock version of a usually bland and dreary, sentimental song. Still soulful, this version’s background skips along with some actual hopefulness.
5. Christmas Wish. This song has the feel of a California beach Christmas tune. Very Beach Boys influenced, almost feels like this should be on the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album. reminiscent of the old Coca-Cola commercial sound “I’d like to teach the world to sing.”
6. Sleigh Ride. A great up-tempo, cheery tune you’d expect on a Zooey Deschanel album. She sings on the back beat of the normal tune, more than just playing with the syncopation of the tune. At first gives you a bit of a start. And she does this holding of notes on consonants that is unusual but kind of cool. Ultimately the playfulness of the back and forth between Deschanel and Ward make this a highlight of the album.
7. Rockin’ Around the Christmas. The best song on the album. Upbeat 1950s, great use of background singers. Sounds as if you pulled a vinyl Christmas album out of a vinyl retro shop and spun it on the 50-year-old stereo you’ve kept in the attic. And not just any album… a Patsy Cline Christmas album. You’d swear it was Cline on the last line of the song.
8. Silver Bells. A cool idea, Silver Bells, only Hawaiian style, backed with Deschanel playing ukelele. A lot less of the full sound we’ve heard before from Deshanel as far as voice goes. But that’s a good thing here because instead she mirrors the nostalgic singing style of Rosemary Clooney.
9. Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Tons more playful than her brief version from the movie Elf, Deschanel and Ward really balance each other equally in a classic rendition of the song.
10. Blue Christmas. Probably the best version of this song I have ever heard, and it’s pretty much my least favorite Christmas song, so that’s saying something. Deschanel is more expressive and soulful than on the other songs on the album. It also has a little Country pop ballad twist, which is a nice interpretation of this song since Country often equates to “blue” lyrics. You get the feel she is singing to a few folks from atop a stool with her guitar in some off the highway, Alabama roadhouse bar.
11. Little Saint Nick. Another fun, California Christmas song. Nice use of background voices. Sang sweetly, again with a touch of that ukelele played by Deschanel.
12. The Christmas Song. A drifting, willowy, mature, satiny version of the classic. Another album highlight.