Friday, July 9, 2010

She and Him

On Wednesday I saw She & Him in a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. Embarking on their first tour, She & Him set out to prove they were more than just a studio-friendly, movie star-fronted, kitschy novelty act. Over the course of their 90ish minute show I think they for the most part proved themselves to be a “real” band, but with somewhat serious flaws that kept me from being fully invested in the show.

This is Zooey Deschanel’s band. The spotlight, literally and figuratively, was always on her and the rest of the band, including M. Ward, seemed to be part of her group, not vice versa. Thankfully she has enough presence and charm to pull it off. The crowd loved her and she seemed engaged with the audience; after the show it felt like she had talked and interacted with the audience more than she actually had. As an actress she has a presence that she was able to transfer to the stage.

M. Ward was towards the side of the stage and ceded the attention to her. The few times he did step to the microphone to sing on his own, instead of just in a soft harmony with her, were some of the highlights of the show. Ward (who looks a lot like Rene from True Blood, by the way) has a great, vulnerable voice and I wanted to hear more of it.

Any concern that this was not a real band, but a nostalgia act dependent on pristine studio environments, was blown out of the water by how tight the band was. Their musicians are pros and their set was extraordinarily faithful to their studio sound. This fidelity to their sound was nearly a problem though, and I would have liked the songs to deviate a little more from the forms we are familiar with. This only happened a few times and when it did it was great to see such a polished band let their hair down a little bit. They ended the first set with a long version of “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,” which devolved into a loud, jam session of near Velvet Underground proportions. The musicians were punishing their instruments, pushing the boundaries of the song and Deschanel was jumping wildly across the stage while slapping her tambourine around. They showed flaws, they showed edges and it was wonderful.

Going into the show I was most concerned about whether or not Deschanel’s voice would hold up in a live setting. The beauty of her voice, on their albums, is how incredibly soft and melodic she can be while also conveying emotion. All great singers are great actors, and I think she can bring a quiet emotion to a song. But I was worried that her soft voice would get lost in live performance and be drowned out by the instruments. She seemed to be aware of this possibility and compensated for this by pushing her voice incredibly hard. The woman can belt out a song. Loudly. Really loudly. In fact, and I didn’t see this coming, I thought she was too loud.

At certain moments, such as the beginning of “Sentimental Heart,” she was singing so loud that I couldn’t even hear the melody of the song. “CRIED ALL NIGHT TILL THERE WAS NOTHING MORE,” is a less powerful lyric when someone is shouting it at your face. Hearing her words wasn’t a problem, but with her singing so loudly, and her vocals up so high in the mix, some of the preciousness of her voice was lost in the live setting. At one point when she hit a loud and high note, I saw someone about a foot in front of me flinch and instinctively cover their ears because it was just so surprisingly loud.

This odd flaw was nearly enough to ruin the show for me; although, I have to admit, I’ve talked to other people who were there who didn’t notice this at all. I think it’s the band’s fault. There was a drummer, a bass player, a keyboardist and the rhythm and lead guitar, AND sometimes Deschanel was also playing the ukulele or the tambourine. Frankly if they developed a more striped-down live sound it would be better for her voice in the long run (she’s not going to be singing for long if she has to belt like that every night) and it would show off her voice’s uniqueness more. This simple sound appeared for the five songs Ward and Deschanel sang together without the band. It was she, him, a ukulele and his guitar, and I thought it was the most affecting part of the show. These quite duets, including covers of “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” and “Wouldn’t it be Nice,” were the best chance for her voice to shine and for Deschanel and Ward to show off their chemistry. It was the two of them singing to each other, and it was so damn cute that you couldn’t help but love it.

At the end of the night I enjoyed the hell out of this show, and am glad I got a chance to see them live. I just hope that in the future they’re willing to sacrifice some of the melodic perfection in order to preserve and highlight their greatest asset, Deshanel’s voice.

Here’s the official website with info on the rest of the tour. Their next stops are: Atlanta, Birmingham, Louisville and LA. 

Here's the setlist. 

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