A Very She & Him Christmas has really been an album waiting to happen. Many of the characteristics of She & Him: nostalgia, kitsch, a honey-voiced vocalist- are already elements that allow classic holiday standards to connect with listeners across generations. Add to that, a vocalist who co-starred- and sang- in one of the most successful Christmas movies of the past decade, and a musical act in the prime of their popularity, and you have the ingredients for a holiday album with great timing.
She & Him mercifully avoid the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tendency that many contemporary artists rely on for holiday music, and at the same time, depart from the more lush production of their recent recording, Volume 2: Understated and sparse, A Very She & Him Christmas provides intimate arrangements of twelve classic holiday songs.
This duo is at their best when reflecting the heart of the original versions of each song. “The Christmas Waltz” is light-hearted and wistful, setting the tone for the album perfectly. “Little Saint Nick” is a true gem, drawing on the original’s warmth and whimsy, and Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” becomes a sultry, cocktail lounge number with a little whiskey on its breath.
In one of the brightest spots on the album, Deschanel turns her performance in Elf on its head by taking on the traditionally male voice part of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with M. Ward as her counterpoint.
I’ll be honest- I find this song pretty problematic. The male voice who pours questionable drinks for the protesting woman in his home sounds like a creep, and I usually wish the woman would kick him in the shin and leave. That said, the shift in perspective reverses the power imbalance and goes a long way toward erasing the coercive undercurrent. The result is a sly, playful repartee and one of the most uptempo songs on the album.
“Sleigh Ride” breathes new life into a standard that often sounds stilted and hurried in other hands. “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree” adds a little rockabilly flavor, as well as a lovely showcase for Deschanel, allowing her to belt out more than any other place on the album.
Unfortunately, a few weaker songs are peppered among ones, adding up to an uneven experience.
“Silver Bells” against a ukulele begins as a charming waltz, but- as a Christmas song describing a bustling urban scene in an unmistakably sad, slow melody- neither soars nor sinks.
It seems to practically be a requirement for contemporary artists to include one of two songs on a Christmas album: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Both are included here, to varying degrees of success. “I’ll Be Home” evokes the right amount of melancholy and fireside coziness. “Have Yourself,” on the other hand, gets somewhat lost, with the minimal arrangement leaving the song feeling oddly weighted down, and the melody seeming to strain the lower end of Ms. Deschanel’s range. Honestly, these two songs are so widely covered that they could easily have been omitted here.
“Blue Christmas” is perhaps the least successful tune on the entire album: a trudging affair, with none of the original’s bluesy swing and all of its melancholy.
At a running time of just over thirty minutes, A Very She & Him Christmas makes a pleasant, subdued background to any holiday gathering. In keeping with the season, this work delivers holiday music with a wink and a nod: paying gentle homage to classic Christmas music, but not taking these songs too seriously.