She & Him's holiday nod to the Beach Boys
This is the 15th year I’ve sorted through the annual deluge of holiday releases to assemble The Times' roundup of the new and most noteworthy additions to the ever-expanding universe of yuletide music. Among the most refreshing to my ears is “A Very She & Him Christmas,” the duo with singer-actress Zooey Deschanel and guitarist-singer-songwriter M. Ward.
Their new album is sweetly down to earth, sounding as if they recorded it in someone’s living room or basement, and the tracks are primarily seasonal classics, including “Sleigh Ride,” “Silver Bells,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Blue Christmas” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
One act that’s represented more than once is the Beach Boys, from which Deschanel and Ward drew “Little Saint Nick” and the less-frequently covered “Christmas Day,” both from “The Beach Boys Christmas Album” originally released in 1964.
The work of the Beach Boys, which recently announced a 50th anniversary reunion album and tour, and its creative mastermind, Brian Wilson, have been a key influence on Ward and Deschanel, so it’s not surprising that they double-dipped when they got the chance to put together their own holiday collection.
"My earliest music memories were driving around and being in the back seat of my parents' car and listening to music," Deschanel told The Times last year. "I feel like I associate music with California and the sun and a particular sort of feeling. It’s something that’s important to me to express when I write music. When we record, California is definitely on our minds."
The Wilson/Beach Boys influence is quickly evident in the multi-layered harmonies that are central to both Beach Boys songs She & Him recorded, as well as in the deeply stacked instrumental accompaniment.
“I listen to the Beach Boys a lot, so their influence on what I do is all over the place,” Ward said recently as Capitol Records was preparing to release “The Smile Sessions” box set of material from the long-ago shelved “Smile” album.
It was just two years after recording “The Beach Boys Christmas Album” that Wilson dived headlong into what was his most ambitious undertaking to date, “Smile.”
“ ‘Smile’" is definitely the creepiest Beach Boys record ever,” Ward said. “On the surface, it’s innocent and child-like, and I think that's what makes it interesting, and obviously ‘Good Vibrations’ has some of the greatest production ever. But ‘Smile’ also has ‘Vega Tables.’ which is probably the weirdest Beach Boys song ever. When you learn about what a mess all their relationships were and the kind of medications they were on, it seems clear that the ‘Smile’ in the title was either forced or medicated.
“I listened to ‘Smile’ a lot, specifically while producing ‘Home’ from [She & Him’s 2010 album] ‘Volume Two’,” he said. “ 'Good Vibrations’ especially manages to seamlessly unite rhythms and textures that really shouldn't belong together, but with the right glue, all these different parts sound like they were meant for each other. That ‘I don’t know where, but she sends me there’ bridge should probably have been its own song, but they somehow managed to make it seem like it couldn’t be presented any other way. Amazing.”
The same could be said of their rendition of “Little Saint Nick,” in which a wash of vocal harmonies float over a simple ukulele backing. Good vibrations, indeed.
-- Randy Lewis
Cover of "A Very She & Him Christmas" album. Credit: Merge Records.