She & Him, Puppies, and “You HAVE to Like…”

I usually post the album art for whatever album I’m reviewing, but for my review of She & Him’s Volume Two, I’ve chosen to post a picture of my dog. Her name is Asha (Swahili word for “life,” and you are free to make jokes about the Cornershop song “Brimful of Asha” all you want) and you don’t have to think she’s awesome. But she’s awesome. Where am I going with this? You can guess: you don’t have to think She & Him’s Volume Two is awesome. But it is awesome.

Before we go much further, we would benefit from a short discussion of something that I fucking hate: when people tell you that you have to love something or do something or believe something (unless that something is, say, scientifically verifiable. Like the germ theory of disease) or whatever. I’ve literally been told I have to like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” because it’s “a classic.” Well, I fucking abhor that song. Its chorus has fuckall to do with its verse, the instrumentation is nauseating, and Steve Perry sings like someone’s applying a vice grip to his balls (if someone hasn’t, they fucking well should). It’s a shitty song and I do not have to like it. I don’t have to like anything. At all. Ever. Are you reading this, Portugal. The Man fans? (Probably not.) While we’re at it, we should also do away with the myth that you have to have an objective reason for not liking something (by “do away with,” I mean “shoot execution style”). “It sounds like shit” is all the reason you need, although my preferred reasons, when pressed by some argumentative nimrod, are either 1) “Fuck you” or 2) “Your mom” or, if I’m feeling saucy, 3) “Fuck your mom.” I really like to elevate the discourse.

Now having said that, there are certain things that I think nearly everyone likes and I’m baffled when I meet people who don’t like whatever thing that is. Like puppies. You like puppies, don’t you? Who the fuck doesn’t like puppies? Or ice cream – excusing, of course, the lactose intolerant. I can understand not liking foods that your body rejects out of all possible exits.

So, for people who like puppies (presumably everyone), you still don’t have to like Journey or Portugal. The Man or Jesus or pizza or sunshine (and you don’t have to like Mariah Carey, for that matter. I sure as hell don’t). But I’m betting you will like She & Him’s Volume Two. I’m betting you liked Volume One. Unless you hate joy (in which case, you might be House Minority Leader John “My Skin is Orange” Boner*. Can we say that your skin tone is natural? HELL NO, we can’t!).

The thing is, it barely makes sense for me to attempt criticism of She & Him’s Volume Two because I liked it a whole lot almost instantly and I like it more every time I hear it. I liked Volume One a lot and Volume Two does not depart much at all from its predecessor’s winning formula. Zooey Deschanel’s voice is in its usual excellent shape (and let’s pause for a second here to give her the maddest of props for blowing up the myth of the actress-as-musical-dilettante. She’s about the only actress I can think of who should definitely quit her day job and pursue music full time. Scarlett Johannsen, on the other hand, should be jailed for her blasphemous desecration of Tom Waits songs, entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head. That album was a pioneering example of epic fuck-awfulness. And those of you who think Miley Cyrus counts as either an actress or musician, well, you’ll grow up some day and be really embarrassed by the passions of your misspent youth**) and M. Ward once again creates brilliant sonic landscapes upon which Deschanel’s voice can freely frolic. Sure, like Volume One, this album is part 70’s country and part oldies radio pastiche, but it’s so musically on point that I don’t care. I’m too busy enjoying the album to point out that it’s derivative, mostly of its predecessor. If anything, Volume Two is a little more uptempo and there are a few more (quite welcome) electric guitar bits. As Deschanel sings on “In the Sun,” “Well, all right.”

I think She & Him’s success is based on three guiding principles: 1) strong melodies. If you asked me, “Matt, what is an indelible melody?”, I would point you to She & Him’s two volumes of pop awesomeness. The melodies on Volume Two are perhaps a bit stronger, but that’s like saying you won two more bucks in the lottery this year than you did last time; 2) understanding, and paying, their debt to the Beatles. I know, everyone owes a debt to the Beatles, but She & Him are two of the Fab Four’s most capable (if obvious) disciples. ‘Nuff said; 3) rarely straying past the four minute mark. This is crucial to the success of music that is so clearly nodding to music we’ve all heard before. A nine minute jam on Volume Two would, in all likelihood, sink the whole enterprise. I’ve said before that brevity is the soul of pop, and She & Him understand that.

Volume Two’s other big improvement over Volume One is the better use of M. Ward’s voice, laying subtle harmonies under Zooey Deschanel’s lovely melody lines. Volume Two is a harmony-rich album (album closer “If You Can’t Sleep” gives me chills), which is impressive to me because it manages to do so without wallowing in the Brian Wilson-worship that has permeated a lot of  indie music over the last few years (I may be committing blasphemy here, but I find Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to be completely overrated. I’m glad he stopped singing about surfing, but can you honestly tell me what the big fuss was about Smile? No? I didn’t think so. For my money, Dark Night of the Soul, which might actually see the light of day this year***, is a much better “lost” record than Smile).

So  yeah. Not much more to say about She & Him, Volume Two. It’s awesome, though not as awesome as my dog, and you don’t have to think so but you probably will. About the album, I mean. And the dog too. You seem pretty smart.

* Spelled phonetically, of course.

** I don’t exclude myself from this. I used to own Bon Jovi albums on cassette. If I could go back in time and kick my ass for that, I would.

*** I am not blaming EMI for Mark Linkous’s death earlier this year. But I’m not not blaming them either. And since today is April 2, make of that what you will.


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