In Brief: Sort of the DIY version of the ideal early 90s R&B/pop album. The Haim sisters’ songs may be a bit on the fluffy side, but their attitude is infectious and their work ethic is admirable.
Sometimes my first impressions of a band can be dead wrong, especially when I’m first exposed to them through a live performance. Haim (whose name rhymes with “time”) would definitely be one of those bands. I first heard them as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and while there was something vaguely catchy about their throwback style that hinted at the glamorous rhythms and melodies of late 80s and early 90s pop (back when we called this stuff “R&B” but there wasn’t really a whole lot of the “B”, and also hip-hop hadn’t hijacked it just yet), I was really turned off by the vocals, which seemed a bit too gruff for a band of this type, almost as if Danielle Haim and her sisters all had colds. Interestingly enough, the band has built up one heck of a live following for themselves before they even had an album out, and I can see why – they’re instrumentally solid in that setting, recreating what would normally be a more middle-of-the-road style of music with rock instrumentation, and plenty of muscular rhythms and riffs to go with it. They seem to have the kind of acclaim normally reserved for indie bands that just got popular enough to be disowned by the hipsters, but being a decidedly poppy band on a major label, there isn’t really anything “indie” about them, aside from their long history of live performance taking precedence over studio craft. I didn’t really know any of this until a friend whose tastes are normally way more indie/experimental than mine recommended the band to me – it’s not everyday someone of that persuasion thinks I’ll like something that he would readily compare to Wilson Phillips. The sisterly harmonies definitely take me back to the days when I was crushing on girls who listened to that stuff (and I won’t lie, “You’re in Love” is still one of my jams every now and then, as are a number of tracks from Amy Grant‘s Heart in Motion), but the musical comparison that get the most press is one that likens Haim to a hybrid of En Vogue and Fleetwood Mac. On paper, that doesn’t quite sound like it would work, but as it turns out, the timing is just right for that sort of nostalgia, what with the music of the 70s and 80s having run several victory laps lately as children born in those eras, now grown-up tastemakers, have found a myriad of ways to make the uncool cool again. It was only a matter of time before someone threw a bit of the early 90s in there… which I suppose means we’ll loop back around to the next generation of Pearl Jam and Nirvana worshipers someday soon… but that’s a story for another review, I guess.
Haim’s debut album, Days Are Gone, contains 11 remarkably solid pop/rock songs, running the gamut from hyperactive dance tracks to silky romantic ballads, to the occasional angry experiment – just enough variety to keep their sticky-sweet default sound from running itself into the ground. Whether the ladies’ vocals have undergone a little sweetening in the studio, or whether it’s just easier to sing clearly when you’re not hoisting an instrument back and forth across a stage, remains to be seen, but either way, they walk a pretty fine line – not too cutesy to drive away adult males, but also not too bratty or too bent on proving their grown-up-ness that they stray into Katy Perry territory. The lyrics mostly deal with heartbreak and the occasional hope of getting over it, often in general enough terms that people in a slew of different situations could probably relate, but never getting so angsty as to drag the listener’s mood down. Aside from one song where the language is a little rough (and bass player Este Haim‘s infamous potty mouth when the band plays live), this is the kind of music I would happily share with my teenage daughter, and that we could both enjoy instead of it just feeling like daddy was humoring her. (I have yet to actually be the parent of a teenage girl… but it’s on the bucket list.)
The first track, while not without its flaws, is an excellent introduction to Haim’s style. You’ll quickly get used to Danielle’s little gasps and stutters and vocal tics, all effective tricks that she uses to keep the lyrics flowing at a brisk pace, contributing to the sorta-nostalgic and sorta-sexy jungle of bass and drums being built up around her. The mix is so dense that it’s easy to get lost at first, almost as if the song seems unnaturally rushed, but since the entire point of it is to describe what it feels like to jump off the edge and fall head over heels in love, the breathless pace makes perfect sense. You’ll notice Alana Haim‘s oddly cheerful keyboards chiming in here and there, which is probably the most glaring aspect of the band’s intentionally dated sound, but it’s not overbearing. The only point where I start to think they might have piled on a bit too much in the studio is when the echoes of all three girls singing “Now I’m falling, falling” over and over threaten to drown out Danielle’s guitar solo. The redeems itself from that misstep at the end, though, nicely dismantling all of its glossy layers to reveal the girls all huddled around one mic in a booth, vamping “Never look back and never give up!” and sounding like they’re having a total party in there.
A killer single, and one of the band’s live show staples, is up next, and it increases the frantic pace of things even more, if you can believe it. I actually find it funny how several of Haim’s songs are kind of a mouthful, with their wordy choruses flying by at breakneck speed, which much create some humorous gibberish as fans try to sing along (at least, it does for me). Not that the lyrics are terribly complicated when you actually stop to read them – here Danielle is frustrated and ready to throw in the towel after feeling like she’s spent an eternity trying to make things right with a guy who is just a horrible match for her. What makes this one so infectious is its killer drum loop, which is heavy on the cymbals and seems to always hit my sweet spot as it slinks on by, accompanied by Alan’s chugging rhythm guitar. It’s definitely the kind of thing that would pair well with a high-octane workout.
3. The Wire
This song was my introduction to the band, and while its rollicking, syncopated rhythm is the stuff 80s pop radio dreams are made of (cheesy programmed hand claps and all), it didn’t translate as well in a live environment, as Danielle and her sisters (who trade off lead vocals quite nicely here) seemed to slur their way through the tongue-twisting lyrics that come out much more clearly in the studio recording. While the previous tracks won me over by way of sheer rhythmic force and seductive vocal layering, this one sweetens the deal even more with one of the album’s most memorable melodies – which is good, because you’ll need that sweet hook to hang on to when you once again get lost in the midst of a chorus that just seems to never end. Ironically for how many words this one has and how tricky they can be to remember, it’s a song about communication and its importance in relationships, sort of a confessional about how Danielle isn’t very good at this, but how she wants to keep those lines open as she struggles with a guy on the other end who seems to be fed up with listening to her excuses. The telephone metaphor may be a bit too cutesy for its own good – “Always keep your heart locked tight, don’t let your mind redial”, but the way that chorus just seems to enslave the mind after a single listen is something else. It’s helped by a few modest bits of guitar soloing and little shout-along moments that are ripe for audience participation.
4. If I Could Change Your Mind
Things get a bit more melancholy here, though no less up-tempo, once again snagging us with an excellent percussion track (I’m not sure if this is Alana’s contribution or if live drummer Dash Hutton also played on the record), matched by the quick, rumbling motion of Este’s bass. The verses back off on that a bit, allowing Danielle’s heartfelt cries to keep a loved one from running away to ring out against the subdued programming, before it hits full force as the chorus pleads, “Forgive my lying eyes/Gonna give you all or nothing/If I could change your mind/I could make you, make you mine.” Alana’s keyboards are probably at their most egregious here, and that may be an unfair thing for me to complain about given my overall enthusiasm for the band’s throwback sound, but the tone of them is a bit too… well, I’ll call it “Magical My Little Pony Pixie Dust” for lack of a better description… for me to take 100% seriously. With that being said, this is still an incredibly strong performance and an excellent example of how the group reworks the highly danceable pop/R&B hybrid sound of yesteryear in a rock band configuration.
5. Honey & I
Compared to the glossy production of the previous songs, this one almost strikes me as a folk song by comparison, even though its lead instrument is still an electric guitar. It’s probably the way that the less processed tone of it rings out into the still night air, giving the song a stripped-down, relaxed vibe that for some reason makes me imagine I’m kicking back on a tropical beach somewhere. While Haim’s stock in trade throughout this album is making breakup songs sound incredibly sweet, this may be their best example, since it’s both a goodbye and a hello at the same time, as Danielle assures that former lover who was so unsure about whether to call it quits that they made the right call, and that she’s much happier with her new honey. I wouldn’t really call this one a “power ballad”, but it gets so joyfully carried away as it picks up momentum near the end, the girls’ voices all cascading down on top of one another, that it hits the same pleasure center in my brain as a lot of power ballads do when they reach their climaxes. If the band ever did an unplugged album, this would probably be a highlight of the setlist.
6. Don’t Save Me
The second song that the band chose to share when they had their day in the limelight on SNL didn’t impress me then, and while I marginally enjoy it on the record, it isn’t really a highlight. Something about the programming, the bass and the percussion here seems maddeningly straightforward, as if they lost their R&B sway and turned into a regular pop group of the era. It’s still awash with pretty keyboard sounds and lovely sisterly melodies, as the girls turn in their version of “Are You Strong Enough to be My Man?” by telling a guy “Baby, don’t save me, if your love isn’t strong”. Maybe it’s the rhyme of “baby” and “save me” that they lean on so heavily here that bugs me. Not that their lyrics are all that inventive elsewhere, but most of them seem to roll off the tongue more beautifully, making this song feel a bit brute-forced by comparison.
7. Days Are Gone
The title track, while not an immediate standout, is a good textbook case of Haim having fun with their mix of live band and old-school keyboard and synth sounds. They bring a bit of the sexy back into the rhythm that “Don’t Save Me” was lacking, and I think one of the other ladies takes the lead vocal here, celebrating the feeling of being so far from an anguished past that it feels like someone else’s life now. This is one of those theme songs that you can pull out and confidently chant along to when you reach that point of finally being over someone where you can’t understand what you ever saw in them in the first place. Or at least, you could follow along if you could understand what the heck they were singing in the chorus. The vocals are high on the “coolness factor” here, but not so much on intelligibility.
8. My Song 5
This song, somewhat lazily titled after the sisters became so familiar with its default Garage Band filename that they just left it as is, turns out to be a huge left-field experiment. It’s minimalistic compared to their usual wall-of-sound approach, often featuring little more than raw vocals over a stomping rhythm of drum and tambourine, strangely sweetened whenever a sampled keyboard snippet or background vocal bit chimes in. And then there’s the bass. OH MY LORD, that creepy bass! It sounds like a cross between a talkbox gone wrong and a devil fart. This is a primal, angry song, at least by Haim’s usual standards, since the language gets the strongest that it has in their recorded material (“I’ll be up going through crazy sh*t I do for you”), and the whole thing’s basically a kiss-off to a cheating bastard. Even a line as silly as “Honey, I’m not your honey pie” sounds downright menacing with the demon-possessed pitch-shifting going on here. So I can understand why some folks might find this song a bit off-putting – I did at first. However, it’s grown to become one of the moments I look forward to most on the album, especially when Danielle lets her guitar solo rip a few times. I guess it’s really more of a riff than a solo, and sometimes I wish she’d stick to the script a little less and improvise on it a bit (the entire song seems ripe for improvisation, actually), but it’s still a jolt to the system, and I wouldn’t mind hearing the band explore their dark side a little more next time around.
9. Go Slow
This is the closest that Haim gets to a “slow jam” – the beat’s seductive enough, the candles are lit, and the mood’s set just right for an evening of slowly, tantalizingly… working your way through a nasty breakup. Wait, what? Yeah, this song doesn’t go where it sounds like it wants to go. Some dude dropped the news on the poor girl all in one big infodump, and she’s begging him to slow down, trying to talk some sense into him, reeling from the pain his blunt words have caused. Or, as the lyrics describe it “Hurting from the heat heat heat heat heat heat heat heeee-eeeee-eat.” Yeah, seriously, they repeat the word “heat” several times in rapid succession, and well… it doesn’t enunciate all that well, sounding more like “hit”, and just generally being too phonetically awkward to work as a decent hook. It’s too bad, because the chorus has an achingly beautiful, sad melody when it comes around, if only it too wasn’t infested with echoes of the “hit”. So this one turns out to be the album’s only dud.
10. Let Me Go
Fortunately, the group turns in a solid, climactic number at the eleventh hour, once again exploring their darker, rockier side, but this time to the tune of an eerily quiet, swaying ballad that builds up a whole lot of bang and clatter as its rhythm comes to life and it hurtles towards its fateful conclusion. The way the sister’s voices, and Danielle’s lead and Alana’s rhythm guitars, play off of each other here is downright fantastic, as the begging to let go from someone who can’t stand to initiate the end on her own becomes more and more frantic. This one gets used as a finale in their live shows, and for good reason – it’s the sort of song that just screams for extended soloing and a drum breakdown and stuff like that. it doesn’t quite get that intense in the studio version – and I think it could stand to run past a mere four minutes for exactly that reason – but it’s still an exhilarating listen.
11. Running If You Call My Name
The album’s final track – exactly the kind of thing the ladies knew they had to put at the end when they came up with it – starts off with a captivating, echoing background vocal hook, the kind that pretty much announces you’ve just walked into the throne room of true love heaven. Having packed her bags and looking back at the bedroom she and her special someone shared for who knows how long, she sighs in defeat, wishing he’d just call out to her one last time, undoing the difficult end of their relationship and promising he’ll run away with her. Unfortunately there’s no real payoff to this compelling set up, as the chorus falls prey to simply repeating the song’s title, never really resolving into anything, until what should have been a home run of an album (and it’s still a solid triple play, mind you) limps across the finish line on its weak fadeout. There’s plenty of pretty here, but it feels like the song was rushed to completion before the hope and devastation underpinning it could be fully explored.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Wire $2
If I Could Change Your Mind $1.50
Honey & I $1.50
Don’t Save Me $.75
Days Are Gone $1
My Song 5 $1.50
Go Slow $.50
Let Me Go $1.50
Running If You Call My Name $.75
Danielle Haim: Lead vocals, guitar
Alana Haim: Rhythm guitar, keyboards, percussion, backing vocals
Este Haim: Bass, guitar, backing vocals
Dash Hutton: Drums
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