Wednesday, October 2, 2013

album review: 'days are gone' by haim

You know, for as many solo female acts I've reviewed this year, I haven't actually covered that many girl groups, or at least in the traditional definition of a pop girl group. I mean, the closest would probably be Icona Pop, but that was a duo and after that? Savages and Echo Bench were girl 'bands', not precisely fitting the stereotypical definition of what would be considered a girl 'group' in the vein of, say, the Spice Girls or TLC. 

The truth of the matter is that girl groups haven't been nearly as successful in North America than internationally, where they continue to exist to this day, particularly in j-pop and k-pop. Of the international girl group acts, I probably like the UK-based girl group Girls Aloud the most, almost to the point where I'd consider them my favourite of the genre (although most of the credit must go to top-notch producing team Xenomania). Yes, seriously - as with boy bands, girl groups didn't quite go away in the UK, and while they didn't quite crossover, acts like Little Mix and Fifth Harmony have achieved some minor success stateside thanks to the influence of Simon Cowell. And really, it's only been a matter of time: as soon as boy bands starting coming back, I knew girl groups would be right around the corner.

So with that, let's talk about HAIM (I guarantee I'm pronouncing this wrong however I say it), a group that really toes the line between girl band and girl group, and which broke into public view last year. These three sisters all do play their own instruments, but they claim to draw a lot of their influence from mid-90s female R&B acts like TLC, which is why I stand by the 'girl group' mention. Strangely, though, many critics have drawn the much sharper comparison to not girl groups or girl bands, but to Fleetwood Mac of all things. That, plus the critical acclaim, was enough to catch some interest from me, and I gave their debut album 'Days Are Gone' a listen. What do I think?

Well, this is going to be a tricky one. HAIM's 'Days Are Gone' is very much an album that the majority of music critics would adore - given its wealth of influences and distinctly 'unique' sound - but I'm not I'm drinking the Kool-Aid just yet, mostly because despite all of those influences, I don't think their music reaches the sum of their parts. Don't get me wrong, the album is very good, but there's something that's not clicking with me and HAIM in a way that fellow indie rock act CHVRCHES clicked in a big way, and given some of the similarities in their sound, I'm more than a little perplexed. 

Okay, let's start with production and instrumentation, which really feels like a hodgepodge of sounds brought together from many different eras. The guitar has a sullen smolder reminiscent of post-punk or classic rock, the keyboards sound like they were partially lifted from a Kate Bush track, the bass is plucky and prominent feels like it was lifted from a retro disco track, the percussion sounds distinctly like it was lifted from a late-period Genesis or Phil Collins mix in the very late-80s and early 90s, and the production is definitively modern, either spacious and letting all the sounds in the mix seether and reverb across the mix, or closer with a clattering immediacy that draws a lot of attention. Thus it didn't surprise me to see Ariel Rechtshaid (known for working with Vampire Weekend and on Usher's 'Climax') and James Ford (recently working with The Arctic Monkeys) as co-writers and producers on this album, because the production is very close to that of HAIM's more famous contemporaries. And for the most part, the sound is actually fairly cohesive - catchy as hell, generally enjoyable, definitely unique with every element in the mix playing their part, and yet not too calculated to be branded inorganic.

And for the most part, the vocals are pretty solid too. All three girls have a fair amount of personality, they harmonize well, and as I said, they're compared to Fleetwood Mac, and that's only a compliment in my books. It's here where I see both comparisons are at their strongest, because while the girls are trying their hardest to emulate those girl groups of the mid-90s, their voices and delivery are a lot closer to that of a modernized Stevie Nicks, and while I would say it isn't the best fit for traditional R&B (the huskiness in their delivery just feels a bit out of place), it's a natural fit for this brand of indie pop. The small nitpick I'll make here is that, like with Icona Pop, I have a hard time telling the various singers apart on most tracks, and that can leech away some of the individuality in their delivery - but really, it's a minor nitpick here. 

So, the production, instrumentation, and vocals were good, so what about the lyrics?


Yeah, this was the area where everything went to hell in a big way, and one of the other things that drove the 'girl group' comparison, because while the vocals might be striving to emulate TLC, the lyrics sound like they were lifted from the Spice Girls, either being shallow as hell or not really being about much of anything. Don't get me wrong, the technical elements of the poetry are okay (if incredibly basic), but there's very little in their lyrics that really distinguishes the band or shows that they have anything interesting to say that hasn't been done a dozen times before - but this is a band that's proudly wearing the indie girl group label and the lack of raw passion in their delivery makes it clear that they're convinced what they're saying is important and valuable. 

But I guess if you're looking for a deeper lyrical meaning in HAIM's material, one thing definitely sticks in a bad way, and that's a lack of agency. All across this album, things 'happen' to the narrator of these songs, and she rarely does anything, and it's often played as if she doesn't have a choice, whether it's in love or in relationships. Take 'Forever', for instance - it's a song about a relationship she clearly resents and one it seems she only got into 'just because', but she's not willing to say something and just end it, instead 'If you say the word, I'll say goodbye'. Say it for yourself, girl, it'll be better for both of you in the long run! And it's not just here - everywhere on this album, nowhere are these girls presented as having agency or control of their relationships or feelings, and while some might argue that's realistic (I'm not touching that argument with a forty-foot pole), it'd be a lot easier to listen through if the relationships (both present and past) described in the lyrics were anything less than toxic. The one real point on the album where it shows the narrator taking agency is the final track 'Running If You Call My Name', and unsurprisingly, it's probably one of my favourite songs on the album (along with 'The Wire', which shows the same worrying lack of agency but presents the situation as somewhat innocuous). The song 'Honey & I' tries something, but it came across as completely unconvincing for me. Maybe it would help matters if the lyrics were more detailed or sounded less unstructured, but too often I'm listening to these songs and the image of the narrator coalescing in my mind is far from flattering, because she comes across as plagued with a lot of insecurity and self-obsession in a way that's not compelling in the slightest.

And I can already hear some people saying, 'No, it's a commentary on girls who get stuck in these situations and don't take agency, and it's how they can't handle themselves' - yeah, I don't buy this. Sure, the indie pop element and the somewhat detached delivery might raise the question of whether or not they're approaching the subject matter ironically, but considering the constant use of the first-person pronoun and the general lack of additional detail and commentary in the lyrics means that there's no good reason to justify a deeper meaning other than weak excuses to justify shallow lyrics.

So yeah, Days Are Gone by HAIM is good, I guess. I'm not going to deny that the eclectic range of sounds that HAIM brings together is interesting and extremely catchy - I can see that with the right marketing push or Glee cover, this band will get some serious airplay.
But at the same time, the lyrical content is pretty much a wash and really paints HAIM, in comparison with acts like Savages or CHVRCHES, as having little to say outside of self-obsessed quasi-romantic whinging, and I don't have a high tolerance for that. I feel like I'm being very generous here, but I will acknowledge the catchy strength of the instrumentation and my fondness for 'nu folk' vocals knocks this up to a 7/10, but man, it barely scrapes that rating. If you don't care about lyrics, or if you're interested in music that is very much a jumbled fusion of multiple influences and lyrics that are too underweight to balance against that, I guess I could recommend HAIM's Days Are Gone, but really, it did very little for me. Eh, it happens.

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