I can’t tell how popular HAIM are now, but I’m pretty sure they’re about to be huge. After releasing the “Forever” EP last summer, the Haim sisters (Este, Danielle, and Alana) have rocketed towards semi-stardom the old fashioned way: via a mix of powerful industry connection, a distinct look, and a handful of singles that balance familiarity and specificity. This description might make their ascension come across as a bit cynical or underserved, but that isn’t really the case. All three are accomplished musicians, Danielle has had a fairly successful career as a session player, and the fact that the three of them bear a resemblance to one another can hardly be construed as a marketing gimmick. For their narrative, the most important element to their success has been their music, represented until the release of Days Are Gone by a group of four singles that marry syncopated rhythms with elaborate vocal melodies and a healthy dose of attitude. While it’s a strong combination, it doesn’t get elaborated much on the rest of the album.
For as long as I’ve been aware of HAIM, I’ve heard them get pegged with a comparison to Fleetwood Mac, and to be sure there are grounds to that claim, but the band are quick to dismiss it in favor of modern R&B and hip-hop as a primary influence. In a freak case of historical math the combination of 70’s soft rock and 90’s R&B has the band split the difference and wind up squarely in 80’s. On one hand you have the vocals mixed dry and upfront like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, but supporting them is a bed of percussion drowned in gated reverb and electric pianos. Although the air of 80’s nostalgia might seem odd coming from a group who’s oldest member was 3 when the Berlin Wall fell, it makes a certain degree of sense considering that decade was the last time that groove-oriented songs made by clinical session musicians could be remotely considered cool. At its worst, namely on “Honey & I”, Days Are Gone comes across as a collection of the most dated tropes of adult oriented pop music; technically astute and tasteful on a surface level but lacking in any danger or pathos. On the other hand, HAIM are smart enough songwriters and arrangers that they can make the dated orchestra stabs on “The Wire”, and canned choir patches on the title track, work as sly elements in otherwise straight-faced compositions.
Where HAIM do feel more obviously in debt to acts like Destiny’s Child and En Vogue is in their approach to vocals. Danielle Haim approaches melody like a drummer (unsurprising considering she is one), twisting away from long notes and instead couching in snappy melismatic runs that play more off the percussion than the underlying harmony. Because of this, Days Are Gone, with the exception of “If I Could Change Your Mind,” lacks in the kind of soaring melodies we expect from pop music. In their place, most of the hooks come from the way different elements of the songs clash against each other, like the way the vocals seem to be slipping off the edge of the drums on “My Song 5” or the snappy syncopation of the main rhythm on “Forever.” The real star of this approach is Este Haim, a clear shoo-in for the 2013 all star band, whose bass lines start wrapped around the rest of the band and gradually blossom out to fill in the whole of the arrangement.
Ultimately HAIM’s greatest strength, their expert level musicianship, can also be their biggest weakness. By putting so much emphasis on their mastery of rhythm, they often neglect melodic development and make dated and uninspired textural decisions. Still, the single run leading up to Days Are Gone proves that they can deliver on pop appeal when they make the effort, and songs like “My Song 5” and the Kate Bush by-way-of Bat For Lashes “Running If You Call My Name” show that they can convincingly get more moody and nasty when they need to. Perhaps the biggest problem this album has is in expectation. For the whole summer I’ve been surrounded by hype for HAIM worthy of a band with a storied history and an acclaimed body of work, not for a group gearing up for their first full length. Realistically, HAIM have plenty of time to grow and adjust. After all, their day has just begun.