Album Review: She & Him, ‘Volume 3’

jason stives … still adorkable … the joke never gets old …

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It’s an understatement that actress/singer Zooey Deschanel has her share of critics in the pop culture landscape. The generalization that has followed her career is that she is a hipster’s dream; a product of irony and nostalgia all mixed into one that is both insufferable and silly. One is quick to argue that she is by no means a critical pariah and the success of her Fox sitcom New Girl has shown on the mainstream end that her brand of awkwardness and cuteness isn’t that overly grading as once thought. She is also a talented musician as one half of the folk duo She & Him with guitarist M. Ward, but it’s tough for some people to recognize that if you are already disenchanted by her appeal.

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It’s possible there are many people unaware of her music let alone that she actually can sing and write songs. If given the time to listen to their already extensive discography (three records and a Christmas album) it would be hard to deny that there is more than enough credibility in spite of what most assume from her sunny disposition. Their latest, Volume 3, further proves her worth in our modern pop culture zeitgeist. It displays a more concise sound that, while more polished and lacking an upfront presence from Ward, is their most fluent and expansive album to date.

As busy as she is, this doesn’t feel like a record rushed to release. Overall the sound of this record displays She & Him at their most cohesive. Vocally, Deschanel sounds far more confident and less agile in her abilities, but still displays a wealth of personality that shines best during most of the tracks’ catchy choruses. When she is acting the most coy on tracks like “Somebody Sweet to Talk To,” she brings it on home with the instantly chanty “I want you!” chorus. Maintaining that immediate recall is the duo’s most obvious trademark. There is no broad stroke to the duo’s songwriting; it’s simple and cheery but it also holds a lot of emotions. Stand-outs like “Never Wanted Your Love” and “Something’s Haunting You” display raw feelings of longing, dejection, and independence all in one.

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Heartbreak isn’t a stranger to the band either; it comes easy in the songwriting of She & Him but there is also a lot to be said about an actress/musician who avoids penning songs riddled with personal upheaval ripped from the headlines. Seeing as how this is Deschanel’s first record after her divorce from Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, there is neither mention nor murmuring of that fallout. This doesn’t mean there isn’t calamity, and Deschanel is keen to show that she can dish as much as she can give. The albums sweeping opener “I’ve Got Your Number, Son” cuts both the male and female counterparts of most songs down with only a sly hint of sarcasm.

These all fit into the basic elements of a She & Him record up to this point, but it wouldn’t be one without a cover or two. This is a signifier of their records but one that varies in results. The choices this time round definitely fit the mold but vary in overall quality. The first cover “Baby” follows on greatly from the opening two tracks but is a weak effort at best, as is the clichéd nature of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” but the inclusion of “Sunday Girl,” an often forgotten Blondie number, squeezes perfectly into the album’s 14 numbers.

If anything feels like it’s missing from previous efforts, it is M. Ward’s overall presence. It feels like he is a session player this time around rather than a partner in crime. Sure, he lends his voice when necessary, as he does on the aforementioned “Baby” and the guitar virtuoso has more than a chance to display his picking abilities, but it’s hard to argue that Deschanel’s increased profile since the last record might make his contributions shine less than before.

Maybe in a way all the happiness embedded in songs of sorrow is Zooey’s way of pushing gently against her retractors. She’s conveying the commonality of life intersecting with songwriting but via her own brand of laid back, songbird styling that meshes well with the bluesy, often country tinged work of Ward. Admittedly Volume 3 feels like the New Girl star front and center but it’s exactly the overall mood and feel the duo have been trying to convey since day one. There will always be detractors and this album is no different but rest assured Volume 3 is another solid effort from these two.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (very good)