A fundamental question about She & Him has been floating around since the project’s announcement in 2008: Would the duo of M. Ward and sometime-actress Zooey Deschanel be a hot indie property if Deschanel were replaced by some unknown but equally as talented singer? Certainly the project would have gained notice due to Ward’s status, but would anyone have high expectations for Volume 2, the band’s second disc?
Because when you get down to it, She & Him is notable for what it’s not. Deschanel isn’t another starlet who thinks she can sing because she’s famous now; her decent set of pipes can pull off some serviceable Linda Ronstadt-esque ballads. And their albums aren’t vanity projects for either party, rushed out with minimal concern. Ward’s pilfering from the golden era of AM pop is some of the more complete genre spelunking he’s done in some time. All in all, the band’s first album, Volume One, was a pleasant little record, not the actress-led nightmare it could have been.
Volume Two doubles down on the AM pop, delivering another 13 songs of nearly flawless construction without many fireworks. It opens with the syrupy “Thieves,” perhaps the best vocal performance of Deschanel’s singing career. “It won’t stop me crying over you,” she repeats, elongating some syllables depending on the mood, before stretching her vocal range for the closing moments. Apart from a few instances — the girl-group swinging “Home,” the Beatles-esque “Over It Over Again” — things fall into a rut of sweet ditties that might work well for an “Intro to Mid-20th Century Popular Music” class, but mostly will just be soundtracking scenes from comedy trailers/your naps in the future. It’s not that you’d expect She & Him to drop some Norwegian black metal into the mix, but a break from the tightly manicured pop — via a guitar solo, some shouting or any noise that couldn’t be described as “precious” — would be welcome.
But Ward and Deschanel clearly have the parameters of their project mapped out, and they’re apparently going to stick to them. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something more should come from these two, like at some point in the future they’ll hit the right balance of retro-pop reverence and modern songcraft and they’ll knock one out of the park. Volume Two feels better than it could be, but it’s still missing that something that would make it great.