Album: Something to Tell You
In Brief: No shocking changes here – the Haim sisters stick largely to what worked on their first album. There might be a few more slick R&B grooves and guitar solos that sneak up on you, and that helps to keep this from feeling like a total retread of Days Are Gone. Still, that album is slightly better song-for-song than this one.
Haim is the kind of band whose members seem to have been raised on the very same kind of music I thought was cool back when I was too young to admit to myself that I actually liked any form of popular music. While my reasons for shunning all forms of popular music up until I was in my mid-teens are too complex to get into right now (suffice to say it had more to do with a religious subculture I was part of than with some sort of an attempt at being a pre-teen hipster), and I only rarely heard popular music in my own home during most of the 80s and early 90s, every now and then something that was burning up the charts at the time would catch my ear, usually due to a sweet backbeat or an irresistible tongue-twister of a chorus. A lot of Haim’s influences seem to come from the era of keyboard-heavy pop, rock and R&B music, as well as some of the big rock acts from the 70s that strongly emphasized vocal harmony that were still reverberating well into the 80s. The members of Haim weren’t even born until the tail end of that era, but their parents must have given them a crash course in what was cool at the time, because when I first got into their debut album Days Are Gone, it felt like I was belatedly catching up with a band who potentially could have existed at the time, if you hadn’t told me that these songs were in fact recorded in the early 2010s.
Perhaps what’s surprising about Haim’s place in the current landscape of popular music is that it isn’t a terribly friendly climate to rock bands. Hip-hop and EDM seem to be where the biggest hits are scored nowadays, while there are tons of bands in the indie-sphere steadfastly proclaiming their love of 80s music through their attempts to revive synthpop and new wave. Haim always felt a little different, since they weren’t quirky enough to feel like an indie band, but the way they spliced together their favorite pop, rock, and R&B influences gave them the kind of musical identity you don’t hear much from popular bands these days. It’s hard to explain – on paper, it sounds like they’re doing nothing that a ton of girl groups before them haven’t tried. There’s just something a little special about the way they emphasize rhythm and syncopation (with all three ladies having been trained on the drums before graduating to the guitar, keyboards, and/or bass), the way they can pack some genuinely motor-mouthed lyrics into a chorus that still ends up being far more of an earworm than anything with that many words has a right to be, and the way rowdier “live band” elements tend to creep into their otherwise highly polished pop songs. Once I got the hang of it, I couldn’t stop playing Days Are Gone, and since I got into that album about a year after it came out, it surprised me that I still had to wait so long for a follow-up. These ladies may make music with a very immediate appeal, but they sure take their sweet time getting it just right before putting it out there.
Something to Tell You is Haim’s second full-length record, released a good four years after Days Are Gone. On the surface, not a whole lot has changed. The sisterly harmonies are still front and center, the songs are packed with bittersweet sentiments of unrequited love and compelling pleas for a couple whose relationship is on the rocks to give it another go. Rhythmic and vocal hooks, as well as the central guitar or keyboard riff of a song, are established seconds into a song, giving you something simple to grab a hold of while you try to take in the rush of emotions that the lyrics are struggling to contain. Nothing about it is too terribly deep, but it’s effective. However, as this album gets into its deeper cuts, I feel like the band is digging a little farther into their plethora of influences, showing off a slightly funkier side here and there, and using space and syncopation to play just a little bit with the audience’s expectation of what direction they’ll decide to take the sound of a particular song. It’s every bit as loaded with potential hits as Days Are Gone, without most of its tracks feeling like a direct effort to recapture the magic of a specific single from the album. This is a pretty good way to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
But still, there are moments where Something to Tell You feels a bit rote, like a song settled for “good enough” and wasn’t brought to its full creative potential. I suppose repetition is what makes a good pop hook out of what would otherwise merely be a pleasant melody, but there are a number of tracks on this album where I feel like the repetition of one or two lines within a chorus makes that chorus seem a bit tiresome by the time the song is over. No matter how much they might tease it out with sexy syncopation, hearing the ladies cram as many iterations of the same three or four words into the available space is bound to get annoying at times. And the subject matter isn’t exactly going to win them any accolades for their songwriting chops. While undeniably heartfelt in every single case, the songs are pretty much universally about romantic relationships, which general enough language that they could be about a lot of different people’s situations. This may give Haim an edge in terms of universal appeal, but it also means that just listening to their albums doesn’t fully capture the unique personalities of the three band members, which any fan who has seen them live can definitely tell you are on full display in that element. Haim had also promised to bring a bit of their live show energy to this record, and while I’m hearing that in a few of lead singer Danielle Haim‘s guitar breaks, ultimately I still feel like a few of these tracks are a bit manicured for the sake of the studio, and will probably stand out more in their concerts, just as tracks like “Let Me Go” did on their previous album. That’s the position that Haim has chosen to stake out, I guess – straddling the line between an efficient and engaging studio band, and a more energetic live band who might let things run a bit off the rails every now and then for the sheer fun of it. The side of Haim you hear on Something to Tell You is still an overwhelmingly appealing one, but I still get the sneaking suspicion that their recorded output isn’t telling us the whole story.
1. Want You Back
The first single from the album is one of those that sounds really simple and straightforward when you first hear it, but that reveals a little more going on under the surface than you might have initially given it credit for. As album openers go, it’s probably more instantly catchy than “Falling” was on Days Are Gone, which was already a high bar to surpass. The reverbed-out keyboards and acoustic guitar, along with the “fill up all the gaps with backing vocals” approach that becomes clear as the song unfolds, contribute a lot to that. This leads to a chorus that makes more out of its simple declaration, “Just know that I want you back”, than you might first expect, because it’s the breathlessly delivered line “I’ll take the fall and the fault in us/I’ll give you all the love I never gave before I left you” that really sells it. The quick cadence of those words is more than enough to hook me, but I also like how it’s different from the usual breakup/makeup song in that it indicates some remorse for taking the person for granted and then just running away due to fear of commitment. Usually it’s the person who got dumped pining for the person who left them to give them another chance, or the person who did the dumping explaining why it’s over, rather than the dumper telling the dumpee they made a bad call and would like a do-over. Haim’s usual mix of rock and R&B, averaging out at extremely catchy pop, is in full-force here, with little hints of Este Haim‘s slap bass in the chorus, and some distorted guitar and vocal effects sweetening the mix, which can be a bit distracting at first due to the Chipmunk-like nature of some of the samples used, but those actually became a lot less distracting than I first found them to be after a few listens. Probably my favorite part of the song is when Alana Haim takes over for the bridge – she’s really just isolating her part of the vocal harmony from the chorus instead of adding anything new to the song, but it’s a nice moment of vulnerability as the band builds back up to an energetic conclusion.
2. Nothing’s Wrong
The second track is more clearly guitar-oriented, being built around a smooth guitar lick that Danielle pretty much knew from the moment she conceived it would be the backbone of the song. The way that the drums and backing vocals build off of it is a little more organic than the band’s usual keyboard-heavy approach, though the slick pop elements aren’t absent here by any means. The lyrics seem to be coaxing out an honest confession from a bored or distant lover who doesn’t want to admit it’s over, and who keeps deflecting the question when asked what’s wrong. Again, the subject matter’s pretty simple, but they’re coming at it from a slightly different angle than I’m used to, valuing honest communication over the denial that would probably be the only way to keep the relationship alive at this point. This song’s most surprising moment is its bridge, when everything but some faint low-end suddenly falls away, which honestly caused me to curse in frustration at thinking my internet connection had cut out on me again when I first listened to it via Spotify. Nope, it’s intentional. It’s a nice interruption to make the listener’s ears perk up for the bridge, and without it, the song would be pleasant but probably not as memorable. I do have to say that the song doesn’t really seem to resolve much past the bridge’s repeated plea of “It’s obvious, be honest” – the song ends as the rather repetitive chorus fades out, without really adding anything new to the story. I have that issue with a lot of tracks on this album, actually – the setup is great, but often the song will have said everything it really has to say by the time it’s about two-thirds of the way done. An altered chorus lyric or some more detail in the bridge would seem to be a workable solution in these cases, but despite that, the band’s still got a solid song here.
3. Little of Your Love
This song got me even more excited than “Want You Back” when the group performed it on SNL a few months ahead of the album’s release. It was my first time hearing anything new from the album, and this track in particular came across as a fun, stomping rocker, with more rapid-fire lyrics in the vein of their most successful singles from the previous record, a bit of a throwback “doo-wop” sort of feel to the piano, and even a little room for Danielle to whip out a guitar solo at the end. The studio version, while still packed with all of these elements (as well as some horns), almost feels like it got so wrapped up with emphasizing the stylistic trimming that it forgot to leave some room for the instruments to really come alive amidst everything else going on in the mix. The fun guitar licks and the closing solo are still there, all of it giving the indication that they’re going to use this one to crank the crowd’s excitement up to eleven when they play it live. But it fades out just as Danielle really seems to be getting into it, which has to be my one biggest frustration with the clean pop production that characterizes the group’s studio efforts thus far. Just give it a little more time and let the group play – not everything has to be kept compact just for the sake of radio; they can always edit it if they really feel the need, can’t they? Despite my reservations, Danielle does a pretty good job of being upbeat and a little flirty as she coaxes a reluctant lover to quit holding back on her. Like “Forever” the main appeal here is how much fun it is to blurt out the chorus while taking as few breaths as you can in between the words, but since it’s literally just “Gimmejustalittleofyourlove baby, and I’ll try” over and over, it feels like it maybe be pandering just a little bit to those who found “Forever” or “The Wire” too wordy to keep up.
4. Ready for You
This is definitely one of the most R&B-oriented songs in the Haim catalog thus far, with some funk trimmings around the edges, largely due to how comfortable it is leaving some space between the skittering, stop-start drum beats in the verse, and how thrilling the jangly guitar riffs and bouncy bass are during the chorus. This song feels like it was more carefully crafted than most of the album, and yet there’s no question it was a ton of fun for the ladies to perform – they sound absolutely exuberant on the chorus, even while they’re busy apologizing for not being in the right emotional space to give a guy a chance when he was totally falling head over heels. Danielle alludes to harboring some mistrust of men and stereotyping him to be like all those other two-timers who I guess broke her heart in the past, but the feeling that she’s overcoming her fears and she’s ready to go full speed ahead with it gives the song just the right balance of angsty edge and gleeful abandon. The most brilliant moment is when the ladies completely warp the song’s chord progression for the bridge, which is a strange little breakdown that comes back around to the song’s signature guitar licks and irresistible chorus melody in a bit of an unexpected way. Pretty much my only complaint about this otherwise perfect song is how early it fades out once it gets back to the chorus, once again cutting short an expressive guitar solo from Danielle. Dear producers: STOP. DOING. THAT.
5. Something to Tell You
Este gets to show off more of her slap bass in the title track’s chorus, and it’s one of those things that I find myself wishing had never gone out of style so that bassists who like playing that way wouldn’t have to feel self-conscious about it now. Whatever; she’s doing it here and clearly having fun with it. The song as a whole is a little more laid-back and spacious than “Ready For You”, still somewhere between R&B and straight-up pop but leaning a little less heavily on the funk this time. The quieter verse gives the band more room to work up to the tumbling drum rolls that add so much power to the chorus, and the sisters show a bit of versatility in the vocal department here, as they go from exuberantly belting out the chorus in unison to a quiet whisper of “I was innocent” pretty much at the drop of a hat. It gives the song a feeling of wanting to just let the floodgates open and say everything that’s on your mind, but then stopping at the last minute because you’re scared of the damage you might do. That’s fitting, since the lyric seems to follow up on “Nothing’s Wrong” by taking the opposite perspective, and putting us in the shoes of the person with the awful secret to spill. It’s really tempting to just not say anything and go on together in the illusion of romantic bliss. And it’s really scary to stop and think of just how miserable two people would eventually become if both of them played out the charade that the song suggests for the rest of their lives.
6. You Never Knew
I’m struggling to describe the very 80s-sounding keyboards that are used in this song. I guess it sort of feels like a lower-key version of the keyboard sound Cyndi Lauper used in “The Goonies R Good Enough” (and I’m not gonna lie, I love that song, and anything I hear that remotely reminds me of it makes me think of pirates). Aside from that, while this song is very smooth and melodic, it doesn’t have as strong a hook as some of the others, nor does it do as much with syncopation, so I tend to overlook it in favor of some of the clear highlights on this album. Maybe part of it’s the interplay between Danielle and her sisters – the call-and-response in the verses just seems rather weak and unenthusiastic. I get that it’s more of an emotionally heavy song about having to end a relationship because the commitment one person wanted was too much for the other to handle. I guess I’m not hearing as much wisdom in the aftermath of the breakup this time around – just a lot of hinting that the guy wasn’t man enough to handle all he was being given. Nothing wrong with feeling that way – I’ve been in clearly one-sided relationships before, so I can relate. I just don’t feel like this one brings as much insight to the table.
7. Kept Me Crying
The band’s collaboration with former Vampire Weekend keyboardist and producer Rostam Batmanglij yielded some pretty interesting results. You won’t hear anything resembling African-inflected Ivy League indie pop here, but the whole song is pretty unconventional, from the down-tempo yet weirdly bouncy syncopated drum programming, to some of the odd filter effects on the vocals, to a surprising and slightly hair-raising moment where Danielle finally gets to let her guitar sing without being cut off because the song is ending. This feels a bit like an indie/garage rock take on an otherwise doo-woppy ballad that might have been filled with a lot of smooth harmonizing and finger-snapping back in the day. Instead it’s got an uneasy edge to it, which isn’t quite as bold of a change-up as tracks like “My Song 5” and “Let Me Go” were on their previous album, but it’s headed in that direction while clearly doing its own unique thing. The regret expressed here over letting what was once a genuinely romantic relationship get downgraded to the occasional drunken booty call is palpable. You get the feeling that both parties know they deserve better, but can’t seem to break the vicious cycle.
8. Found It in Silence
What I remember most about this track is how busy the strings and drums are. I enjoy the relentless energy that they bring to the track, as if it’s trying to keep a runner motivated until the very last moment of the race. Unfortunately I don’t connect a whole lot with the lyrics or the melody here. Despite Haim’s high-energy, three-pronged attack, I find that this one also gets bogged down a bit in repetition, never quite fleshing out exactly what it is that they found in silence. I know the song is trying to wrap up some unfinished business from “Nothing’s Wrong” and “Something to Tell You”, which both addressed the damage that silence can do in a relationship. But the best I can glean from this one here is that one person’s denial and refusal to talk openly about the couple’s problems became the final straw for the other one to just walk away. Once again, just repeating the chorus when the lyrics could be doing more to move the story along really starts to irk me. This isn’t a bad performance; it just feels like it’s a bit incomplete as a self-contained song.
9. Walking Away
For me, the low point of Days Are Gone was its ninth track, which was a mellower R&B ballad called “Go Slow”, which had a smooth setup but a bit of an awkward delivery, due to – surprise! – some repetitive lyrics. This one isn’t quite as awkward, but it still stumbles in much the same way, by rendering its title utterly redundant as the chorus is nothing but those two words, crammed in as many times as possible against an otherwise laid-back beat. It doesn’t work, no matter how smoothly they might overlay it with a different vocal part from the bridge later on. At this point, we’ve hashed and rehashed why the couple needs to call it quits, so while I appreciate finally having a clear moment where Danielle makes it crystal clear that she’s done with the guy and she’s not looking back, I don’t feel like there’s much of anything new in the analysis of her reasoning here. Haim has taken about five songs to say what they really could have said with two at this point. I’m fine with that when the pop hooks and the vocal interplay are really strong, but that’s not really happening for me here. There are a few moments where they find clever ways to sing around the beat instead of on it, giving the song a hint of improvisation rather than everything being meticulously planned ahead. It just never really coalesces into a performance that seems totally sure of itself.
10. Right Now
This song sounded like an absolute, infuriating mess to me the first few times I listened to it. It was all the fault of the drum programming, which comes in with a seemingly innocuous bit of syncopation as the cymbals are lightly tapped again and again, that seems designed to fool the listener’s ears into not knowing where the “1” count is in each measure. That means that the keyboards and vocals sound like they’re off by half a beat and struggling to catch up, which seems to ruin an otherwise tight, eerily restrained R&B ballad. After a few listens, once I knew what to anticipate, I actually figured out where the beat was despite the percussion trying to throw me off, and then I realized that the song was pretty awesome. It’s amazing how much that one little nitpicky thing changes my perception of it, now that I think about it. The way that this track moves from a quiet lament to an impassioned storm of frustration, and then back again, makes it one of Haim’s all-time best dramatic highlights. That peak comes early in the song, with the angry electric guitar suddenly swooping in, casting a gloomy gray shadow over an otherwise delicate song. Girl’s got the right to be upset here. She gave her all to someone who gave very little back to her, and now that it’s over, suddenly he’s pining for her affection. You can almost imagine her sarcastically emphasizing the word “Now” when she sadly sings “Now you’re saying that you need me” and “Now you’re saying that you love me” in the chorus. (Remember Anberlin‘s “A Day Late”? This has some of that same “Oh, now you tell me” sort of pathos to it, except that the invitation to still be friends is presumably not being extended.) This song might be guilty of once again cramming the same repeated line in more times than necessary, like “Walking Away” did, but since there’s a bit of interplay with the other two voices chiming in “Right now, right now”, it’s a much stronger hook. (I could also do without the spoken interlude – when you’ve got good vocal talent and you’re not trying to explore hip-hop influences or do something humorously ironic, it feels a bit cheap to shortchange your audience by not singing some of your lyrics, but honestly it’s not that obtrusive.) I love that the band brings in the big drums at the end, paying off the buildup in a unique way that doesn’t bring back the heavy guitar you might be expecting after that earlier verse, but that sets them up for a live show climax every bit as thrilling as the end of “Let Me Go”.
11. Night So Long
Since a lot of the album was apparently about a relationship that couldn’t withstand the rigors of touring, it’s fitting that the album ends on this dark, lonely piece about finally facing up to the reality of being by yourself in a room, with no one to share your most private moments with as the day draws to a close. While this isn’t one of the more musically or vocally impressive tracks on the album – it’s really more of a postscript than a grand finale – I appreciate that Haim exercised some restraint here, deciding to communicate a mood rather than forcing a song to be built around an obvious verse/chorus structure. The dark, sinewy guitar chords almost sound like they could be another bass here, and aside from some light keyboard effects and the inherent sweetness of the sisters harmonizing for a few bars, it’s a pretty bleak composition. (I keep thinking of the opening to Tool‘s “Parabol” when I hear that dark guitar tone. That’s a downright weird thing to come to your mind when listening to a normally poppy girl group.) There’s a bit of subtle genius in the lyrics, that not only allude to the night being “so long”, but that also allude to this being the night you say “so long” to someone who was causing you a lot of grief and pain. This song may be the sound of hitting rock bottom after finally burning that bridge for good, but it’s the kind of low point that your heart has to hit in order for the healing begin. So even though the record ends on a sudden, somber note, it feels like its final seconds are hinting at the anticipation of better days to come.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Want You Back $1.75
Nothing’s Wrong $1
Little of Your Love $1.25
Ready for You $1.75
Something to Tell You $1.25
You Never Knew $.50
Kept Me Crying $1.25
Found It in Silence $.75
Walking Away $.50
Right Now $1.50
Night So Long $.75
Danielle Haim: Guitars, lead vocals
Alana Haim: Guitars, keyboards, backing vocals
Este Haim: Bass, backing vocals
Dash Hutton: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: