She & Him’s "Volume Two"

2008 was a year that produced a remarkable amount of great musical firsts. Within this twelve month period, artists such as Vampire Weekend, The Ting Tings, Santigold, Ida Maria, and The Black Ghosts all released debut albums that challenged the fine line between mainstream pop and rock, incorporating various cross-genre influences to make refreshingly unique, beautiful, and cohesive sounds. Fleet Foxes capitalized on the craze for dreamy music nostalgic of artists of the past, as did two soulful divas Duffy and Adele, the latter of whom went on to win two Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Pop Female Vocal Performance for her hit single “Chasing Pavements.” Pop music found a new rebel chick in Katy Perry, while the (now) international phenomenon known as Lady GaGa just danced her way to the top of the charts, becoming an immediate icon and staple of pop culture. And in the indie world, true stars were born with the release of She & Him’s “Volume One,” a masterpiece of contemporary folk music.

With the immense amount of success acts such as these experienced, it is no wonder these artists were thrust into the mainstream spotlight with high demands for more. And while 2008 may have treated them kindly, prior success does not necessarily guarantee longevity for these artists. MGMT, for instance, had one of the most successful, commercially and critically acclaimed records of the year, “Oracular Spectacular.” Their rise to fame in such a short period of time was an incredibly rare (and well deserved) feat, especially for an indie band. Songs such as “Time To Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” “Weekend Wars,” and “Kids” were impossible to avoid, playing on loop everywhere from the radio to television and film soundtracks to commercials.

Now, two years later, MGMT is releasing their long awaited follow-up album, “Congratulations,” proving that sometimes having too much hype surrounding a record’s release can be a formula for a sophomore slump. As a result, the only thing worth congratulating about the band’s new album is that it shows that they are not afraid of hyper-broadening their horizons and trying new sounds — although they should have really stuck with the one that launched them in the first place.

Boundaries are tricky things when it comes to music. While, on the one hand, artists certainly want to evolve their sounds so as not to duplicate their previous efforts, they also don’t want to aim so far off the map of what they’ve done that they lose their cultural relevance and become one-hit wonders. An artist like Kelly Clarkson, for example, evolved her sound from the soulful ballads of her first album “Thankful” to the catchy pop/rock anthems on her follow-up “Breakaway.” The reason this worked is because while she did try something new, it was a natural progression; the roots can be traced to her earlier work with songs such as “Miss Independent” or “Low,” where clearly the seed had been planted and was waiting to develop into something bigger. Bands such as MGMT, however, don’t succeed in their efforts because they start from scratch and aim for the stars by picking entirely brand new musical directions, hoping that their fans will be on board for the journey.

The reason She & Him’s eagerly anticipated new record “Volume Two” is so successful is because, while it is a clear musical evolution for band members Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, it reminds us why we fell in love with this dynamic duo in the first place. Yes, this album is clearly more produced to have a more mainstream radio friendly effect than its predecessor; it is still a sophisticated, smart, and elegant record that would perfectly suit the smallest coffee shops while still easily filling stadiums and concert arenas.

Unlike MGMT, She & Him’s sophomore attempt is a successful and clear progression of their previous work, making music that is new while still within a recognizable realm of their trademark sound. Although mainstream audiences may be more inclined to pick up this new release, the album holds that same quirky and sentimental quality that makes it feel enough under the radar that Zooey is singing to solely you that the last one possessed. And while the band is basking in more critical acclaim than ever before and growing rapidly in popularity (their spring tour sold out in minutes), it is important to remember that sometimes small things can come in big packages too.

The record opens with “Thieves,” a melancholy song about two lovers mourning the end of their relationship while dealing with loneliness and new loves. Zooey’s raw vocals capture the vulnerability that come with displaying this type of exposed emotion perfectly, as she attempts to focus on the silver lining while lamenting her loss. Although it is one of the only truly downtempo songs on the album, it is the perfect first track because it picks up exactly where Volume One left off, creating a launch pad from which the rest of the songs can emerge.

Next comes lead single “In The Sun,” the poppiest song on the record. A perfect surf-pop track, it is impossible not to bop along and want to dance to this sweet little number. Lyrically, the song is simply cute and a little on the cliché side, but Zooey executes it in a way that makes you truly believe her advice when she sings “well alright, it’s okay, we all get the slip sometimes.” Accompanied by a music video that combines the sass and playfulness of “Baby One More Time” with the indie quirk and flair of films like Juno or even 500 Days of Summer, Deschanel and Ward have written an undeniably delightful, feel-good song that’ll leave you humming and tapping your toes without you even noticing it.

On Volume One, She & Him sounded like a band that had stepped into a time machine and came here from the 1960s to provide us with soft, pretty folk songs. On Volume Two, the concept of the time machine still applies, yet this time the record is composed primarily of folk songs that lean more in the direction of 60’s pop than country. Half way through listening to the album, I was expecting a “Leader of the Pack” cover, simply because it is that particular alternative dream-pop sound that this album captures so flawlessly.

Songs like “Don’t Look Back” provide an infectious piano score which support Zooey’s multi-layered background harmonies to her daring vocals. Vocally, it is tracks like this one that make Volume Two a clearly more evolved sound for the band. Zooey truly lets herself have fun sliding around between octaves in an unarguably charming fashion, constantly leaving her listener upset that the song is over by the time it has ended. Similarly, “Over It Over Again,” a highlight of the album, finds She & Him emulating their best Everly Brothers’ sound providing a lush and moody melody followed by soft yet driving percussion while Zooey’s voice penetrates your ear and you start to pray that it never leaves.

Other tracks such as “Lingering Still,” “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” and “Ridin’ In My Car” provide the listener with aural candy which only has the side effects of a soothed-out soul. The album closes with “If You Can’t Sleep,” a gorgeous track interwoven with intricate and supremely beautiful yet haunting vocals. “And in your dreams, I’ll touch your cheek and lay my head on your shoulder, goodbye shadows, goodbye shadows,” Zooey croons. The song comes full circle from “Thieves,” ending the record with another downtempo piece that gives the sense that even though questions may remain unanswered, at the end of the day all that really matters is the love one has.

In 2008, the music world was truly gifted with the emerging presence of She & Him. In 2010, the band is back in full force, ready to infiltrate your ears with their vintage new wave sound. In addition to their immaculate music, their lyrics are often incredibly complex and philosophical, making their audiences truly listen to and ponder their music. Volume Two cites everything from Greek mythology to politics to lost youth to forbidden love to puppy love. If today’s music scene were a hot summer’s day, She & Him would be the cool glass of lemonade – a classic that provides a much needed alternative to the heat, refreshing and rejuvenating you. Personally, while the summer can be wonderful, I’d rather stay in the shade with my lemonade and slowly sip it to make sure I’ve drank every last drop.


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Sue Gurnee’s "The Fulgent Cadences"

When I first walked into Feature Inc. to see Sue Gurnee’s exhibit The Fulgent Cadences, I was both surprised and intrigued by the fact that the gallery included a set of instructions for how to view the exhibit. Immediately I thought of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which exemplifies how context shifts one’s perception of art. Rather than following the instructions that were laid out for me, I decided I would allow myself to experience the exhibit twice – once without any outside influence and taking it for its bare face value, and then once after having read the instructions. I wanted to form my own ideas and opinions about the art before having the lens in which I viewed it swayed by whatever these instructions called upon me to do.

The Fulgent Cadences is a very unique exhibit. Painted on 24×24 canvases with supersaturated latex paint, the pieces that make up this exhibition depict rhythmic brain patterns, specifically in reference to the decision making process, that Gurnee calls the fulgent cadences. ‘Through her independent observational research that was begun in 1989, she has identified a cross cultural/cross generational set of seven distinct rhythmic brain functions, the fulgent cadences, that drive our decision-making process. These paintings have been made as a way for viewers to balance their rhythmic brain functions so to embrace growth and development through the quality of their choices.”[1]

There are seven fulgent cadences, all of which are displayed and broken down individually in Gurnee’s series. It is scientific fact that humans do not utilize one hundred percent of their brain’s power and capacity, so Gurnee deconstructs the fulgent cadences in order to give her audience a clearer perspective of the neurological processes of decision making. It is within her mission statement of this piece to inspire her audiences to concentrate enough in order to actually use the full potential of all seven fulgent cadences. “This experience is supposed to improve people’s decision-making processes by integrating diverse functions of consciousness.”[2]

Viewing the exhibit, round one: I went into the exhibit knowing only that the paintings I was about to see are meant to display and educate me about the patterns in my brain while I’m making decisions. Immediately, I’m brought back to Dr. Jeremy Tesseire’s neuroscience class, Mind & Brain. During one of our lab days, we conducted EEG experiments. In my personal experiment, I concentrated on phobia, and the brain patterns that were created when my test subject, a friend of mine deathly terrified of ostriches, watched online videos of ostriches breaking car windows and pecking at the people inside the vehicles. When comparing my subject’s brain patterns when in a neutral position versus when she was watching these videos, there was a drastically clear distinction that showed a much more hyperactive and scattered neurological pattern during the state of fear. Remembering this, I expected Gurnee’s paintings to display something similar, interpreting and expanding it creatively in the same way that a novelization of a film screenplay acts.

But this had me thinking. Science is rigid, structured, formulaic, and most importantly, based on facts. It does not accept truths unless they are proven to be completely accurate. Art, on the other hand, is based entirely on perspective, and the truths that are presented are in fact simply manifestations of the artist’s personal truths, which are not universal. Plato’s famous “bed argument” stated that an artist painting a portrait of a bed does not actually understand the bed at all. Only the actual maker of the bed truly has a truthful idea of what that bed is. Anything the artist may paint, therefore, is instead only a specific personal perspective for how they see the bed, meaning no truths about the bed can be employed from the art. If this is true, then how much of Gurnee’s paintings can be taken as literal truthful reproductions of our neurological patterns, and further, how are these pieces meant to inspire us to use all of our fulgent cadences if we don’t even know that what we’re seeing is accurate to what’s in inside our heads? If art is biased exclusively to the artist’s perspective, how can I, as a viewer, trust Gurnee’s paintings for their scientific precision the same way I trusted the EEG readings of my experiment? Can artistic neurological imaginings constitute as scientific evidential data?

As I walked through the gallery, I noted that the paintings were arranged in what seemed like a sequential order. All the pieces are titled as Fulgent Cadence with a number after them. Fulgent Cadence #1 seems rather tranquil, with a combination of bright and dark colors slowly blending into one another yet sharply being contrasted into their own exclusive areas of the canvas without any overlap. It is almost as though the colors create borders that the rest of the colors on the canvas cannot cross, creating a rather neat portrait.

This tidy order, however, does not last. By Fulgent Cadence #3, the colors have spilled out of their boundaries and begin to layer on top of one another. It is as though the color gates had been opened, allowing chaos to spread across the once pristine canvas. In addition, lightly colored thin blue orbs appear on the painting, varying in size from small to large and scattered across the painting. These orbs represent changes in our brain occurring as the waves shift and travel. Unlike the area defined colors in Fulgent Cadence #1, these orbs are on the entire canvas, unconcerned with being locked into a specific area and instead roaming freely amongst the mind’s terrain. This evolution continues as in Fulgent Cadence #4, the amount of orbs multiply severely, to the point where by Fulgent Cadence #6, there are so many of these orbs that they cluster together and form a sheet above the original colors. The focus is then entirely on these orbs, showcasing decisions being made, as opposed to the actual physical setting of the brain.

So what exactly does this mean? Is this to say that when we make decisions, weighing possible outcomes and considering various outside factors in fact clutters our brains rather than put things into a tidy perspective? Does trying to make logic out of a situation overwhelm our brains and confuse us more? Or is Gurnee simply trying to make the claim that so much goes into decision making that the brain becomes nearly entirely dominated by everything that goes into it until that decision is made? Which then begs the question – after the decision has been made, is there calm after the storm, or do the patterns not resort back to their hiding places and stay permanently scattered? The last painting in the series depicts the terrain of the brain with completely chaotic colors splattered everywhere, and the once nearly translucent, thin orbs are now big, thick, and solid black, littering the majority of the canvas. Is this to show the impact decision making has on the brain, or does Gurnee merely end her series at the grand finale, when the decision is made, and not giving the brain time to resort back to its pre-decision mode? It is left unclear.

After having observed the pieces in this gallery once without reading Gurnee’s instructions, I decided to take a quick break and then come back for round two. I had made my initial opinions and reactions and was ready to have the context in which I viewed these paintings altered in an attempt to have a new experience viewing them. I went to go read the signs that I had avoided before upon my initial arrival to the gallery. “Let the image’s vibrations contact you,” they read.

Feeling disappointed from how anti-climactic these instructions were, I still decided to go look at the series again. I couldn’t get past the questions I had about science and I wanted the instructions to educate me in a way that would make me trust these paintings more. Sadly, I went in for my second time just as perplexed and philosophically troubled by what I was seeing as I did the first time. However, I did try to allow myself to be “contacted” by the “vibrations.” I stared harder and longer at the cumulative works, but again, just found myself asking the same questions over and over again. This is not to disprove Berger’s theory of context because I do strongly agree with him, but these events also made me realize that after having experienced this art already, personally manipulating my own context would not mean that I was started from a fresh slate like I previously had. Instead, I was trying to use Gurnee’s instructions to answer the questions I had proposed the first time I was viewing the exhibit, yet still came out blank.

Leaving Feature Inc., I felt underwhelmed. I had expected this exhibit to be an interdisciplinary marvel. It wasn’t until I was face to face with Gurnee’s paintings, however, that I realized how naive those expectations had been. While Gurnee does seem to present a chronological narrative of the fulgent cadences, not having a written indication of the changes occurring made viewing this exhibit confusing. I do not come from a scientific background and I wanted to really learn what I was seeing. Yes, art is meant to be analyzed, but is that the case when art is trying to depict science? Science is not something where the line is drawn at possible interpretations of truths, which seems to me to be at the polar opposite end of art, which allows for a lot of personal interpretation. Unlike in science, people’s truths don’t have to be the same and match up in art. It is accepted to disagree and have two people come to completely contrasting conclusions about art, but if this were to occur in science, either other parties would need to get involved or one would have to start from the beginning in order to detect an error somewhere. Therefore, how much credit does Gurnee’s work have? Does it make someone uneducated to blindly accept what they’re shown as fact if its very foundation negates that of the science it is attempting to display?

As with the science versus art debacle, I was troubled by one other aspect of Gurnee’s exhibit. She stated that the purpose of her work was to inspire people to utilize all of the fulgent cadences because humans don’t use enough of their brain and its capabilities. This claim disturbed me. Not because of the idea that I’m not using enough of my brain, but that I had some sort of control over how much I actually do use. If the purpose of Gurnee’s paintings was to inspire more brain activity, does that not suggest that it is our conscious choice to only use a small fraction of our brain? If we had the ability to use more of our brains, wouldn’t everyone already be doing that? It is almost insulting to the human psyche for Gurnee to suggest that we have the ability to use our brain’s full potential but decide not to, as if we’d rather not advance our evolution. Furthermore, it is even more presumptuous of her to suggest that her art can instigate that type of evolution, especially if it something, as she believes, that humans have been instinctly suppressing their entire lives.

Visually, Sue Gurnee’s Fulgent Cadence paintings are stunning. They are gorgeous compilations of vibrant versus muted colors, and the artist’s ability to layer her canvas with such intricate detail is truly exceptional. There is no doubt that Gurnee is a talented artist. The problems in these paintings are not the actual artistry, but rather their intent. As abstract paintings alone, these pieces are beautiful. However, they cannot be accepted as the truths Gurnee is trying to market them as. Even if these paintings were done as replicas of EEG readings, the fact of the matter is nobody has ever been inside of a brain and watched precisely what happens to one’s brain patterns during the decision making process. Therefore, it is impossible to document that. Even if there were a video camera installed in someone’s brain, the images that would be produced would still only be from the camera’s perspective and there could be missing pieces of the puzzle going on around said camera, showing an inaccurate rendition of what really goes on in our heads. And even then, a painting of the events in that video would be only the artist’s perspective of what that video is showing, making the painting already far too many times removed from the actual process of decision making to accurately portray it.

Logically, Gurnee’s exhibit makes no sense. It has too many holes in it. I consider myself an art enthusiast. Galleries always inspire and warm me. However, I do think that science is a line that if art decides to cross, must be observed with great amounts of skepticism and questioning. It is once art attempts to cross this line that the magic of art begins to disintegrate, because rather than presenting perceptions of truth, it is attempting to display 100% factual accuracies, something that no form of art can do. All art, even photography and video, is somehow manipulated by their artists or mediums, so to present art as scientific data is immature and unrealistic.

I don’t regret going to this exhibit. As previously mentioned, it was definitely a visually pleasing collection of work. While I may not have gotten out of it what Gurnee had intended, this exhibit did educate me. It taught me to think about art in a way in which I had previously not. The philosophical aftermath of this gallery experience showed me how dangerous art can sometimes be, as it can really manipulate one’s self-perceptions if it is blindly accepted for its face value. This exhibit is a classic case of needing to dive beyond the surface in order to understand or come to logical conclusions from it. Either way, Gurnee’s work did inspire me to think – just not with my entire brain.

Works Cited

“Sue Gurnee ‘The Fulgent Cadences’” by Anonymous. NY Art Beat. March 2010.

“Sue Gurnee ‘The Fulgent Cadences’” by Ken Johnson. New York Times. March 19, 2010.

The Republic. Plato. Penguin Classics. New York. 2007 Re-print edition.

Ways of Seeing. John Berger. Penguin Books. London. 1990.

[1] “Sue Gurnee ‘The Fulgent Cadences’” by Anonymous. NY Art Beat. March 2010.

[2] “Sue Gurnee ‘The Fulgent Cadences’” by Ken Johnson. New York Times. March 19, 2010.