Review: She & Him – A Very She & Him Christmas

1 The Christmas Waltz
2 Christmas Day
3 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
4 I’ll Be Home for Christmas
5 Christmas Wish
6 Sleigh Ride
7 Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
8 Silver Bells
9 Baby, It’s Cold Outside
10 Blue Christmas
11. Little Saint Nick
12 The Christmas Song

Forget Whitney – what seems to be disgusting people more than ever now is walking into a retail outlet to find Christmas merchandise already on the shelves. “It’s not even Halloween!” the woman in a green blouse and turtle earrings invariably says. “They should be ashamed of themselves.” By that logic, why aren’t more people disgusted with She & Him’s new album? Putting out a Christmas record when it isn’t Christmas is at least peculiar, if not suspicious. Should Christmas music be judged as eternal, not only the sort of limited perennial music that only pops around every December?

I might be willing to say so, but She & Him aren’t the band to convince me. M. Ward, who had accomplishments like Transfiguration of Vincent and Transistor Radio prior to his first collaborations with Zooey Deschanel in 2006, is an innovative musician and a compelling lyricist. Deschanel, on the other hand, has a unique delivery, but is neither innovative nor compelling. My opinion soured when I heard the duo was releasing A Very She & Him Christmas this week, because I felt they would not be above marginalizing the holiday. On the band’s site there are mittens for sale along with a limited edition red vinyl of the album, just so you can sit in your living room with the fire roaring and your golden retriever at the foot of your pipe-smoking father’s chair and ribbons in your hair, resting on your elbows and thinking about how swell this time of year is.

But there’s a difference between hearing about the album and actually hearing it. I admit I wanted to rest on my elbows and imagine myself at a sock hop without the fantasy seeming contrived in the least. Part of it is because both musicians are dedicated to examining the past. Ward has covered both Bach and The Beach Boys, and pays a special debt to John Fahey in his technique. Deschanel emulates all the heartbroken singers of the fifties who were clothed in pencil skirts and loafers, in equal measures channeling Blossom Dearie and Mary Weiss. The care and detail to produce such an effectively retrospective work is remarkable, and I commend the duo for it.

The problems exist on numbers like “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Waltz,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Deschanel’s voice is recognizable, but it lacks the strength to carry tracks that require complete assertion and deftness of character. I listen to the stations that broadcast Christmas music every year because I either want familiar songs to comfort me or new ones to arrest me. I warm to “Last Christmas” (come on, if I am not allowed an indulgence like Wham! what have I?), but I constantly canvass for new songs to be attracted to. Because of the gross volume of Christmas songs released every year, and the month or two listeners have to enjoy them, if a cover does not hit the mark I cannot add it to my canon of treasured holiday music. I need something piquant to thaw me through the snow, not anything lukewarm or tepid. Unfortunately, I feel like Deschanel doesn’t have the insight or assertiveness to take the lead here.

By golly, though, you’d better lift a couple tunes off the record, if nothing else. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is on point, perhaps the most so in She & Him’s catalog. It’s not such a bold claim when the listener considers M. Ward’s elastic soloing and Deschanel’s effervescent personality – this is more Brenda Lee than even Brenda Lee could muster. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which is my favorite Christmas song (well…) is just as sincere and heartfelt as it can be, and as boozy as it should be. Finally, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” switches the male/female parts so that it’s cute, even when Ward asks, befuddled, “Hey, what’s in this drink?” Because, let’s face it, “Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Gibbard?” is something everyone has wanted to say at least once in their lives. M. Ward’s a great producer, too, so if you raise a fit because this isn’t the Christmas album to rule them all, you still have Deschanel’s double-tracked vocals flitting away into a behemoth cavern as your consolation.


Stream A Very She & Him Christmas in its entirety at Spotify here

Stream: “The Christmas Waltz”