More than one eyebrow raised when She and Him announced a Christmas album. The wholesome pop duo, composed of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, is known for their quirky-cute indie tunes. Their debut, 2008’sVolume One and follow up Volume Two in 2010 were a sugary mix of sweet and cheesy love songs. A Christmas album, however, is just so…mainstream. While songs like “Sentimental Heart” and “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here” were perfect fodder for the Williamsburg fake-glasses wearing crowd, an album of holiday standards is just not ironic enough.
2011 has seen Deschanel shake off her cult following for a larger audience. She’s the star of Fox sitcom New Girl. It was bizarre enough seeing the indie film starlet on a channel infamous for its numbingly generic dialog and programming aimed at the lowest common dominator, but the weekly show presented a new problem: Deschanel’s sweetness is like Pixy Stix, a hit here and there is the right pick-me-up; a constant intake equals diabetes.
She and Him need to turn down the twee or risk seeming manic. And for the most part, that’s what they did in A Very She and Him Christmas, from Merge Records. They’ve stripped down the merry chirping and instrumentation for a lush minimalism.
In songs like opener “Christmas Waltz,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Silver Bells” (which features a ukulele!), Deschanel’s slightly smoky, seductive voice is a thick caramel on the track. Often, the only instrumentation is the soft strumming of strings or the tapping of piano keys, giving the songs an adult sophistication. The first third of the album is calm without being lethargic, making it the perfect soundtrack for a dinner party or late night slow dance with someone you love.
That’s not to say A Very She and Him Christmas is 30 minutes of lullabies. Deschanel and Ward have fun with the rockabilly guitar on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and add drums on “Sleigh Ride.” The tropical duet “Christmas Wish” is reminiscent of the line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” of mermaids singing each to each.
The middle of the album, starting with “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” sees Deschanel sip an espresso and slow wake. Sadly, by “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” it’s evident she had one shot too many: while her voice is perky, the instruments lag behind her, creating an odd cacophony.
However, the duo really drop the ball on “Baby it’s Cold Outside.” What is arguably one of the most classic cover songs is given a fun twist when Ward takes the part of the person trying to escape seduction and Deschanel the coy lover feeding excuses to their future conquest. Gender swap! But the two duet like they had to catch a train and there was exactly two minutes left on their studio rental. Their cover is so hurried and panicked, it’s honestly stressful to listen to.
If they had replicated their earlier, slower, approach in “Baby it’s Cold Outside,” it would have probably been the album’s best track. As it stands, it’s the worst. While the more “alert” songs on here are nothing special, “Little St. Nick” hits it on the nose. The song is a perfect blend of cheer and twee without going overboard.
Albums of holiday standards are a strange beast—what’s the point of covering, and buying copies of, dated, old hat songs? She and Him answer that question. Even if consumers can find these exact tracks replicated with but few, subtle differences in hundreds of artists’ repertoires, it doesn’t matter, if none of those artists are their favorite. Singers like Mariah Carey, Jessica Simpson, Michael Bublé and Justin Bieber don’t appeal to hip, urban 20- and 30-somethings. Deschanel does.
Deschanel’s luxurious, feminine voice dripping slowly like syrup is addictive. Her cuteness is infectious. Despite a few missteps, overall, A Very She and Him Christmas is a very perfect holiday soundtrack.
This article was originally published on AllMediaNY.com