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She & Him, ‘Volume 3’ (Merge)

She & Him
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: May 09, 2013
Label: Merge

Back in 2008, She & Him seemed like a whimsical diversion for singer/movie star Zooey Deschanel and guitarist M. Ward — an artsy little love-over-gold side project before she made her next blockbuster flick and he went back to making moody late-night folk records. But now, the existence of three full albums (four, if you count 2011’s A Very She & Him Christmas) have pretty much eradicated any accusations of dilettantism, establishing Ward as a crackerjack studio wiz, and Deschanel as a cut above Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Laurie, and other singing thespians.

God only knows where they find the time. Ward still has a thriving solo career, just missing the Top 20 with last year’s A Wasteland Companion. And between starring in the hit FOX sitcom New Girl and chatting up Siri in another iPhone commercial, Deschanel is as ubiquitous as ever. But somehow, they’ve found the energy to make She & Him into a separate entity that draws from their dual solo identities without being hemmed in by them.

That vibe, however, is starting to seem one-dimensional. Like its predecessors, Volume 3 falls right on that self-conscious line between cute and cloying: Deschanel appears to realize that, sighing that she’s “tired of bein’ clever” on the chorus of “Never Wanted Your Love.” The album sounds like what the ingénue heroine of a chick-lit romance novel set in 1996 would be listening to on her pink transistor radio while chronicling intense romantic travails in her diary. Credit Ward for that, as he lives out his girl group-Svengali fantasies with the group’s biggest, lushest arrangements yet. When the Wall of Sound kicks in beneath Deschanel’s howling ooh-ooh-oohs on the opener “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” it sounds like Ward imitating Brian Wilson imitating Phil Spector.

At the other end of the spectrum is the dreamy “London,” a torch-song ballad with nothing more than piano and vocals. And the rendition of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” is surprisingly subdued, dialed way down from the bombast of Mel Carter’s 1965 hit version. It’s also one of the album’s three covers, along with the Brill Building obscurity “Baby” (rescued from the Raindrops, songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s recording group) and Blondie’s “Sunday Girl” — the version with a verse sung in French, done up the way Buddy Holly might have tackled it. It should come as no surprise that Deschanel’s French is a little rough, but it’s perfectly competent and charming. So is the rest of the record, but then, you already knew that.