Less a collaboration than a well-executed business deal, She & Him’s music makes good on the cutely reductive premise of the group’s name, condensing its two members down to classically defined musical gender roles. She (Zooey Deschanel) is the front-and-center muse, replete with syrupy voice and pretty face. He (M. Ward) is the cerebral creator, handling writing and production duties, tinkering dutifully behind the scenes.
It might be easy to ignore She & Him’s seemingly automated coupling if their tunes didn’t sound so blandly focused-grouped. Varying little from the white-bread country of Volume One, their sunny second effort comes off as pleasing in a mostly functional sense, its harmless lack of mistakes or risk reason enough to feel ill at ease with it while still enjoying the music as background filler.
What Volume Two comes down to is a three-sided transaction, with Deschanel, Ward, and the listener all acting as parties—a renewal of the contract drawn up by their first album. She gets the backing cred of an established musician, segueing from a few earlier stabs at singing into a musical crystallization of a hopelessly twee image. He gets a vessel, a living doll able to deliver his songs with grace and precision. We get an album full of above-standard AM radio-inflected California country, with the condition that we don’t question why it exists or, more pressingly, why it’s so drowsy and stiff-limbed.
Ward uses Deschanel in the same manner as Phil Spector employed his girl groups, as beautiful avatars for the kind of jovial sounds he could not create himself. We even get a little taste of the Wall of Sound on “Don’t Look Back,” which layers Deschanel’s vocals into effective opposition with one another. Yet there’s none of the sense of unbridled joy that defined Spector’s songs. They are breezy and dryly catchy but never feel like they could be anything else. We know from his earlier work that Ward is equipped to deal with emotions beyond cheerful satisfaction and slightly lovelorn perplexity, but those parts of the spectrum don’t figure in here.
Still, Volume Two isn’t about surprises so much as the exacting fulfillment of that aforementioned contract. It trades in the same kind of sensory candy offered by Deschanel’s cute-as-a-button image as a whole. And sure, there’s nothing really wrong with the album (for some this may be just right), it’s only that its by-the-numbers sense of satisfied expectations becomes quietly deadening.
In his solo work, Ward’s songs have exhibited a kind of arcane gritty lyricism: They’re false museum pieces, revivifying old notions of garage-sale Americana, but they have heart and feel at least partially lived in. There’s very little of that here, and though it’s hard to hate Volume Two, it’s also far too easy to forget it.