She & Him (View the full slideshow.)
June 18, 2013
Hear about She & Him at blog or magazine distance and your impression of them is dominated by the simple presence of Zooey Deschanel's name. Get a little closer, within range of one of their albums, and your impression of them is dominated by their sound -- thick and vintage and further away from twee pop than you probably expected, sounding like nothing so much as Roy Orbison circa Jeff Lynne and the Traveling Wilburys.
Closer still -- at Comerica Theatre on Tuesday -- neither impression holds true. Live, She & Him are neither an actress' side project nor an uncanny imitation of retro torch-pop. They're just an exceptionally tight band playing great songs.
Things do get a little more twee -- a little more like you expected, maybe -- in person. The backing band looks just this side of in-costume, and to one side sways a matched set of ragdoll-dressed backing singers (The Chapin Sisters, well-regarded in their own right) with defiantly arhythmic synchronized dance moves.
But they can sing as well as they can't dance, and the band clearly comes by their band costumes honestly. If they're daring you to think of them as a novelty act, a parody of the kind of band Zooey Deschanel would be in, it's a non-issue, because once you hear them you won't take them up on it.
Despite all the moving parts, the live setting gave these songs a new sharpness. Things were as precise as they are on record -- you come with an accordion, you best not miss -- but standing in for the albums' hermetic ELO tightness was a surprising briskness. No song -- no surprisingly tricky guitar riff, no vocal affect, no instrumental cameo -- overstayed its welcome.
At the front of the band stood Deschanel and M. Ward, the titular Him. Ward looked to be behind the songs' newfound energy -- his lead parts constantly pushed the tempo, and seemed to get faster, more complex, more aggressive as the evening wore on.
Ward plays the guitar, crouched down and jittery, like he's trying to jimmy a lock with the headstock; he sings and even talks with a genre-appropriate rasp, like he's just performed a punishing three-hour set but is game for a fifth encore.
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Deschanel -- well, if you've watched Zooey Deschanel in anything, and you probably have, you've got some idea already. Her combination of ür-indie-girl and Patsy Cline is no less weird or engaging than you might expect, and her stage banter, focused mostly but not entirely on Phoenix being an unusually hot place, would've been in character for most of her roles. ("Does Phoenix love the band Phoenix, even though they're French? You're not mad at them? I was just wondering...")
Later on a drunk-sounding request from the audience -- "How do you pronounce your name!?" -- became an effortless let's-introduce-the-band segue. Which is to say that their stage presence -- like their musical chops, like their tightness as a band, and like, even, the size of the venues they're playing -- is pretty advanced for their age, three albums in. All the questions about Zooey Deschanel's fame and how many people are going to see The Actress instead of The Musician don't evaporate after you see She & Him live, but that's only because her fame and her seriousness are being put to use in the service of, say, a beautiful cover of "Rave On."
The rootsy, pre-Beatles music She & Him play could go off the rails so many ways -- into gilt-edged NPR preservation mode at one end, oversexed "modern" pastiche at the other -- but it doesn't. They play it straight, which is not to say period-appropriate, and somehow make their old tropes speak their old messages in our language.
After the jump: Critic's Notebook and more photos
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Critic's Notebook: Last night: She & Him at Comerica Theatre The Crowd: Couples, and then groups of three or four girls kind of dressed like Zooey Deschanel, and then my fellow NPR listeners, looking a little sheepish. Overheard: Most of the catcalling was feminine -- and not directed at M. Ward. (Sorry, Him. Though it should be said that he got a huge pop from the pit for his harmonies on "You've Really Got a Hold on Me.") Random Notebook Dump: "Is everyone drinking water? It's important." is a good example of a thing Zooey Deschanel can say but I can't.