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She & Him - A Very She & Him Christmas

'A Very She & He Christmas' is the 3rd album from actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and quiet indie music man M. Ward. Their previous efforts have offered plenty of inspired moments so we were pretty excited to see how the pair would perform juxtaposed between a stack of pine needles and a quart of mulled wine. For the most part it is just Dechanel's vocals softly drifting atop the sparse acoustic arrangements provided by Matthew Ward (mostly shortened to M. Ward). However hollow that may sound in practise it becomes, for the most part, a thing of stripped back festive beauty.

We get a good insight into what is going to emerge on this 12 track collection courtesy of the opening song, the Sinatra cover 'The Christmas Waltz'. A piano tinkles, a chord flickers and Deschanel purrs like there is nothing better to do than play along to the softly precipitating snow outside. On an album not short on quiet numbers 'Have Yourself A Merry Christmas' grabs the limelight for being positively mouse-like (a near non-stirring mouse we should add). Expel too much air at once and Deschanel's vocals might just bend over like a feather that has been shoved in front of an industrial fan. For all that it still sounds towering.

On an inspired cover of the Beach Boys' 'Christmas Day', minimalism is thrown out the window and even if the clean cut approach on most of the rest of the album is a tonic it still sounds great to hear a full technicolour production. She & Him's cover of Joey Spampinato's 'Christmas Wish' is a nother highlight as much for the obscurity and lack of knowledge of the original as the twin presence of both She and Him. While we were contentedly sleigh riding along with only Zooey for vocal company it does make for a nice departure to be joined by the soft embrace of M. Ward's words.

In a generally beautiful judged album there are one or two missteps. 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' suffers for being too upbeat and too incidental all at once. It sounds like a demo or a guide to where the song was due to go. In other words it sounds unfinished, which is a shame because the singer sounds like she could be about to give a winning performance. 'Sleigh Ride' is another that doesn't quite work, again it sounds rushed before the ideas were fully explored. For the first time on this album the female part of our duo also sounds vocally out of her depth. Like a family member convinced of her own talent but lacking that vital ingredient to make such a grandiose boast believable.

Early impressions of the much abused 'Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree' don't auger well but some fine backing harmonies save the day. The percussion on this one may be quite leaden but the fretwork more than makes up for it. If campfires could be lit during December then this one would surely be given plenty of outings.

'Silver Bells' and 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' play alongside each other and it proves to be a minor masterstroke as the former opens the conversation via a mandolin and Deschanel's stop-start delivery. 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' is an unusually fast paced rendition. Initially the hurried industry is a little overwhelming but a whistle here and a loose chord there is enough to pacify the purists from breaking down She & Him's frost laden door. Give it some time and it will work its magic.

After the near theatrics of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' 'Blue Christmas' is typically downcast, not altogether forgettable because it does have a neat country swing but not altogether memorable either given the artists that have covered it before. Which brings us neatly in the opposite direction and in the gleeful arms of 'Little Saint Nick' wherein She & Him conspire to construct a truly transcendant moment. Of course there are other notable ditties but 'Little St. Nick' is so perfectly executed you can almost picture Brian Wilson smiling.

Given her recent divorce (to another indie diehard, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie) there are bound to be references to the moniker Zooey Deschanel chose to give her musical sortee but that would be unfair because as far as this album goes there is only one man in her life. And anyway were it not for the unhappiness back on the ranch we would probably never have gotten such an alluring sad performance as on 'The Christmas Song'. M. Ward adds a tropical canvass and one of 2011's best Christmas album's closes on a high through a genuine slice of interpreted low.

 

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