Wednesday, March 31, 2010

She & Him's "Volume Two"

2008 was a year that produced a remarkable amount of great musical firsts. Within this twelve month period, artists such as Vampire Weekend, The Ting Tings, Santigold, Ida Maria, and The Black Ghosts all released debut albums that challenged the fine line between mainstream pop and rock, incorporating various cross-genre influences to make refreshingly unique, beautiful, and cohesive sounds. Fleet Foxes capitalized on the craze for dreamy music nostalgic of artists of the past, as did two soulful divas Duffy and Adele, the latter of whom went on to win two Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Pop Female Vocal Performance for her hit single “Chasing Pavements.” Pop music found a new rebel chick in Katy Perry, while the (now) international phenomenon known as Lady GaGa just danced her way to the top of the charts, becoming an immediate icon and staple of pop culture. And in the indie world, true stars were born with the release of She & Him’s “Volume One,” a masterpiece of contemporary folk music.

With the immense amount of success acts such as these experienced, it is no wonder these artists were thrust into the mainstream spotlight with high demands for more. And while 2008 may have treated them kindly, prior success does not necessarily guarantee longevity for these artists. MGMT, for instance, had one of the most successful, commercially and critically acclaimed records of the year, “Oracular Spectacular.” Their rise to fame in such a short period of time was an incredibly rare (and well deserved) feat, especially for an indie band. Songs such as “Time To Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” “Weekend Wars,” and “Kids” were impossible to avoid, playing on loop everywhere from the radio to television and film soundtracks to commercials.

Now, two years later, MGMT is releasing their long awaited follow-up album, “Congratulations,” proving that sometimes having too much hype surrounding a record’s release can be a formula for a sophomore slump. As a result, the only thing worth congratulating about the band’s new album is that it shows that they are not afraid of hyper-broadening their horizons and trying new sounds -- although they should have really stuck with the one that launched them in the first place.

Boundaries are tricky things when it comes to music. While, on the one hand, artists certainly want to evolve their sounds so as not to duplicate their previous efforts, they also don’t want to aim so far off the map of what they’ve done that they lose their cultural relevance and become one-hit wonders. An artist like Kelly Clarkson, for example, evolved her sound from the soulful ballads of her first album “Thankful” to the catchy pop/rock anthems on her follow-up “Breakaway.” The reason this worked is because while she did try something new, it was a natural progression; the roots can be traced to her earlier work with songs such as “Miss Independent” or “Low,” where clearly the seed had been planted and was waiting to develop into something bigger. Bands such as MGMT, however, don’t succeed in their efforts because they start from scratch and aim for the stars by picking entirely brand new musical directions, hoping that their fans will be on board for the journey.

The reason She & Him’s eagerly anticipated new record “Volume Two” is so successful is because, while it is a clear musical evolution for band members Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, it reminds us why we fell in love with this dynamic duo in the first place. Yes, this album is clearly more produced to have a more mainstream radio friendly effect than its predecessor; it is still a sophisticated, smart, and elegant record that would perfectly suit the smallest coffee shops while still easily filling stadiums and concert arenas.

Unlike MGMT, She & Him’s sophomore attempt is a successful and clear progression of their previous work, making music that is new while still within a recognizable realm of their trademark sound. Although mainstream audiences may be more inclined to pick up this new release, the album holds that same quirky and sentimental quality that makes it feel enough under the radar that Zooey is singing to solely you that the last one possessed. And while the band is basking in more critical acclaim than ever before and growing rapidly in popularity (their spring tour sold out in minutes), it is important to remember that sometimes small things can come in big packages too.

The record opens with “Thieves,” a melancholy song about two lovers mourning the end of their relationship while dealing with loneliness and new loves. Zooey’s raw vocals capture the vulnerability that come with displaying this type of exposed emotion perfectly, as she attempts to focus on the silver lining while lamenting her loss. Although it is one of the only truly downtempo songs on the album, it is the perfect first track because it picks up exactly where Volume One left off, creating a launch pad from which the rest of the songs can emerge.

Next comes lead single “In The Sun,” the poppiest song on the record. A perfect surf-pop track, it is impossible not to bop along and want to dance to this sweet little number. Lyrically, the song is simply cute and a little on the cliché side, but Zooey executes it in a way that makes you truly believe her advice when she sings “well alright, it’s okay, we all get the slip sometimes.” Accompanied by a music video that combines the sass and playfulness of “Baby One More Time” with the indie quirk and flair of films like Juno or even 500 Days of Summer, Deschanel and Ward have written an undeniably delightful, feel-good song that’ll leave you humming and tapping your toes without you even noticing it.

On Volume One, She & Him sounded like a band that had stepped into a time machine and came here from the 1960s to provide us with soft, pretty folk songs. On Volume Two, the concept of the time machine still applies, yet this time the record is composed primarily of folk songs that lean more in the direction of 60’s pop than country. Half way through listening to the album, I was expecting a “Leader of the Pack” cover, simply because it is that particular alternative dream-pop sound that this album captures so flawlessly.

Songs like “Don’t Look Back” provide an infectious piano score which support Zooey’s multi-layered background harmonies to her daring vocals. Vocally, it is tracks like this one that make Volume Two a clearly more evolved sound for the band. Zooey truly lets herself have fun sliding around between octaves in an unarguably charming fashion, constantly leaving her listener upset that the song is over by the time it has ended. Similarly, “Over It Over Again,” a highlight of the album, finds She & Him emulating their best Everly Brothers’ sound providing a lush and moody melody followed by soft yet driving percussion while Zooey’s voice penetrates your ear and you start to pray that it never leaves.

Other tracks such as “Lingering Still,” “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” and “Ridin’ In My Car” provide the listener with aural candy which only has the side effects of a soothed-out soul. The album closes with “If You Can’t Sleep,” a gorgeous track interwoven with intricate and supremely beautiful yet haunting vocals. “And in your dreams, I’ll touch your cheek and lay my head on your shoulder, goodbye shadows, goodbye shadows,” Zooey croons. The song comes full circle from “Thieves,” ending the record with another downtempo piece that gives the sense that even though questions may remain unanswered, at the end of the day all that really matters is the love one has.

In 2008, the music world was truly gifted with the emerging presence of She & Him. In 2010, the band is back in full force, ready to infiltrate your ears with their vintage new wave sound. In addition to their immaculate music, their lyrics are often incredibly complex and philosophical, making their audiences truly listen to and ponder their music. Volume Two cites everything from Greek mythology to politics to lost youth to forbidden love to puppy love. If today’s music scene were a hot summer’s day, She & Him would be the cool glass of lemonade – a classic that provides a much needed alternative to the heat, refreshing and rejuvenating you. Personally, while the summer can be wonderful, I’d rather stay in the shade with my lemonade and slowly sip it to make sure I’ve drank every last drop.


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