Let's be honest: She & Him are an extremely hateable duo. Had Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward quit recording after their first album, Volume 1, they would have remained cool in a lot more eyes — if only because one record's worth of kitschy retro-folk would be easier to look back fondly at on a later date: "Remember when that chick from (500) Days of Summer made that weird old-timey album?" music nerds would be saying now. "That was surprisingly cool." Instead, we're three volumes in, the cutesy shtick has worn a little thin, and, thanks to that Christmas album, She & Him are looking way too sweet.
The key problem of course is Zooey Deschanel, whose very aura is fundamentally, intrinsically annoying. There's the incessantly quirky thing, the constant reliance on doe-eyed girliness, that nasal tone to both her singing and speaking voice. And there's that motherfucking cotton commercial. And that motherfucking iPhone commercial. She insists on doing ironic dance routines in She & Him music videos (see "In the Sun" and "I Could've Been Your Girl," which Deschanel directed herself) and, to make matters worse, she went and divorced that nice Ben Gibbard fellow from Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service. There are thousands of people in this fine country of ours who won't even sit through Deschanel's (actually very funny) sitcom New Girl, because they just don't want to look at her face — especially not when it's talking on an iPhone that has bunny ears.
Then there's M. Ward, who, one gets the impression, is too cool for school. He doesn't talk a lot, he's got a pouty face and, as far as we can tell, he never looks like shit. His hair is gently graying at the sides now too, so he has a distinguished air, even though he's still totally down with the kids. It's infuriating. He has, thanks to his solo work and involvement with Monsters of Folk (a band that also features Jim James from My Morning Jacket and Conor Oberst), too many muso points. It's all too obvious how seriously he takes himself.
So why would you even think about paying to go and watch these two humans make noise at the Greek Theatre this Saturday? Here's why: If you turn off your cynical switch and approach them from the right angle, She & Him make genuinely heart-warming, feel-good music. It harks back to a simpler time, when ladies sat around waiting for the phone to ring and men were dashing and always put nice shirts on before they took you out on the town. She & Him has all the charm of Burt Bacharach and the Carpenters, but with a Nancy Sinatra sass on top. The trick is to stop expecting their songs to make sense in the here and now, and just let them transport you to another time and place. Seen from that perspective, the music and attitude aren't a shtick. They're just ... nice.
In 2008, Volume 1 was an exercise in the kinds of heartbreak songs the world loves when they come from Patsy Cline. "Sentimental Heart," despite the title, was far from sickly. It was a song about getting stomped on because you're vulnerable. Similarly, "Take It Back" was a genuinely soulful, lounge-style ballad about the hurt that comes with dating a player. "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?," despite an aggravating video, is essentially a pop track about being lonely and confused, but trying to stay optimistic — and it's great.
In 2010 Volume 2 veered more into standard indie territory. But even with the obviously gorgeous "Thieves" and ridiculously catchy "In the Sun," the people who had decided She & Him were merely a novelty act the first time around paid no mind and continued to shrug off the band.
Volume 3 arrived last month and upped She & Him's game. The duo is sticking to what it does best — sweet, catchy, often upbeat songs with lonesome, weep-into-your-hanky lyrics. There are country elements, '60s pop elements, and even some classical touches. Volume 3 is the perfect amalgamation of everything She & Him has done before, with some extra shine on top for good measure.
Oh, and yes, in 2011, there was a Christmas album — the most embarrassing and hateable kind of album in the history of pop music. But even that we were grateful for, because on Christmas Day, when your aunt gets wasted and insists on playing some seasonal tunes, there is now something better than Michael effing Bublé. If Christmas music has to exist (and it does), then Ward and Deschanel are among the handful of people we want making it.
She & Him — regardless of what you think of the two people in it — make songs that are pretty, well-constructed, catchy, memorable, and beautifully performed. Just like all that old-fashioned pop from the '60's and '70s that it's still okay to listen to. Sadly, the gentle spirit that runs through all of She & Him's music makes it easy for a lot of cynical people to dismiss. At a certain point, we have to wonder what's so wrong with being cute? Why must only hard, sad, angry music be taken seriously? What's so wrong with pretending to be in a 1950s musical for an hour? She & Him, after all, are about escapism. They're about turning off the news, muting your cellphone, pretending wi-fi and the war on terror don't exist, and holding hands with your honey for a while — and there's something to be said for all of that.