What do She & Him want for Christmas? 'Real instruments' played by humans

It’s not that Zooey Deschanel thinks Mariah Carey’s signature holiday standard is a terrible song.

In truth, it’s just the sound of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — those lacquered synths and booming drums — that turns off the singer and actress best known as the star of the hit Fox sitcom “New Girl.”

“The melody is actually really nice,” Deschanel said on a recent afternoon. “But the production is so slick!”

More important, in her view, the arrangement on Carey’s 1994 recording might be impossible for a human to reproduce.

“It’s all automated,” she said. “Those triplets — nobody could play that fast.” To illustrate, Deschanel did her best to pound out the song’s frenzied keyboard lick on a table. “You’d lose your forearm.”

Reclaiming glossy yuletide jams as hand-played pop ditties — that’s part of what Deschanel and her musical partner, M. Ward, were aiming to do on “Christmas Party,” the second holiday album from their proudly old-fashioned duo, She & Him.

Released last month, the record includes stripped-down renditions of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and frequently abused staples such as “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland,” each a low-key showcase for Deschanel’s smoky vocals and Ward’s nimble guitar playing.

Yet “Christmas Party” also calls attention to more obscure holiday tunes like “Christmas Memories,” once sung by Frank Sinatra, and the zydeco-flavored “Must Be Santa,” an early-’60s rave-up covered a few years ago by Bob Dylan.

For the latter, Deschanel and Ward convened a kind of indie-rock dream team (with Jenny Lewis and former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, among others) for a more elaborate production that feels appealingly homemade.

Hanging with Ward in Culver City on a day off from shooting “New Girl,” Deschanel said they had the analog warmth of certain pop classics in mind — “The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album” and “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector,” to name two — as they recorded “Christmas Party” over the summer.

That meant using only “real instruments,” as the singer put it, and avoiding Auto-Tune, the vocal-correction software whose effects saturate Top 40 radio.

“It was strictly forbidden,” Deschanel said. Added Ward, who produces She & Him’s records: “Auto-Tune dates the music,” which for him works against his attempt to make something that feels timeless.

In their era, though, Spector and Brian Wilson were using all the modern technology available to them; there was no nostalgia or self-imposed restraint in Spector’s so-called Wall of Sound. So if he were making records today, isn’t it possible — even likely — that his idea of a great production would be those inhuman keyboard triplets in Carey’s supercharged “All I Want for Christmas Is You”?

“Could be!” Deschanel replied with a laugh. “Sometimes you’ll talk to old-timers and they’ll say, ‘We hate tape — digital is so much better.’

“I’m like, ‘Don’t tell me this!’”

As that comment suggests, She & Him aren’t without a sense of humor about this stuff, which helps make “Christmas Party” a throwback pleasure instead of the dull purist’s exercise it might’ve been. They also bring a sense of style to the material — as in a lushly harmonized “Mele Kalikimaka” and gorgeously blurry “Run Run Rudolph” — that is its own reward.

That distinctive voice has grown stronger over the eight years since the duo released its debut, the cutesy-rootsy “Volume One,” in 2008. Back then, She & Him seemed to many like a celebrity one-off unlikely to stick around.

“Even our friends were dismissive — like, ‘Oh, that was a nice little thing,’” recalled Deschanel, who met Ward when the two were asked to record a duet for an independent film called “The Go-Getter.”

Yet they continued playing and writing together, creating two more albums of original songs, a previous Christmas disc and, in 2014, a sly standards set that showed off a new depth in Deschanel’s singing.

“Female voices, they just get better when you get into your 30s,” she said. “It’s physiological.”

Ward, who makes solo records and has also worked as a producer and sideman with the likes of Bright Eyes and Mavis Staples, said She & Him represents much more than a hobby. But he acknowledged that the duo’s relatively low-pressure circumstance has made it easy to follow creative impulses.

“A lot of our friends’ bands have people on payroll,” he said. “Neither of us are like, ‘How are we going to stretch this album into 12 months of our lives?’”

As if to prove the point, the two shrugged happily when asked whether they’d make a third Christmas record.

“I wouldn’t say no,” Deschanel answered.

If they do, though, they already know one song sure to pose a challenge — and not just because of the production.

“We tried to do ‘Here Comes Santa Claus,’ but then we realized how religious that song is,” said Deschanel, who explained that She & Him approach holiday music from a decidedly un-churchy point of view.

“We had a nice little rhythm going and I brought up the lyrics on my phone,” she recalled. “It goes, ‘Santa knows that we’re God’s children / And that makes everything right / Hang your stockings and say your prayers…’” She trailed off, laughing.

“I was like, ‘Wait, who’s Santa? Is he God? The devil? Jesus?’

“It was kind of scary.”

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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