Wednesday, July 12, 2017

album review: 'something to tell you' by haim

I'll be the first to admit I was really hard on HAIM the first time I covered them. Again, I can make the excuse that I was very early in my reviewing career on YouTube, and that I probably could have afforded to be a little more deft in my commentary - but I'm also not going to deny that for all of the hype thrown behind this group, I've consistently been underwhelmed by the actual music and songwriting on display.

Which of course is awkward for me to say because on some level, HAIM is the modern mainstream music critic's dream project to review: independent and underground enough to earn hipster points, but not too weird or unconventional to lose the mainstream public - hell they're friends of Taylor Swift, which is an easy namedrop for clicks! They're indebted to folk and indie acts of the past but with a very modern style of songwriting that would win over the poptimist. They had an image that seemed a little more weighty than your average girl group, they all played their own instruments, they were quirky, it's very easy to see why a lot of critics were taken in... and I wasn't one of them. And I'm not saying that to brag, I wish I could have found more to like in the songwriting behind HAIM to really appreciate and get onboard the bandwagon, but outside of specific songs like 'The Wire' - which is awesome and made my year-end lists of the best songs of 2013 - I was just underwhelmed and a little unsettled by some of the implications in that writing.

But again, your average music critic's dream band, so with all the acclaim you'd expect them to have a follow-up ready fairly quickly... and now it's four years later. I'll give them points for two years of touring, but apparently initial studio sessions were unfruitful and it took a lot longer for the band to pull things together - which struck me as odd, given that I never found their arrangements or writing to be incredibly complex or challenging to assemble. But hey, there's an art in blending styles and nailing the formula well, so now that we finally have Something To Tell You, what did we get?

Okay, here's the frustrating thing: I'm not going to deny that this project feels more musically and lyrically cohesive, and seems to skirt around the edges of the major underlying issues I found in their debut... but at the same time, it did so by sanding back the edges of their blended throwback sound into something that feels tepid in the least interesting way possible. That's not saying Something To Tell You isn't tolerable - I can certainly listen to this and generally enjoy it - but whereas HAIM seemed to have real experimental potential and instrumental chops on their debut that just needed some fine-tuning, Something To Tell You feels overworked and sanitized to the point where any experimentation or bite feels perfunctory.

Or let me put it another way: while I can be more forgiving of easy listening or adult contemporary music than most, especially around the late 80s or early 90s and especially if they've got strong vocal harmonies backing them up, I'm not going to say that music can't feel dated, sterile, and really underwhelming if the writing doesn't step up. And thus when HAIM deliver the equivalent of a mid-90s Donna Lewis record with only the hint of real groove or bite or experimentation, and yet are being marketed as being rootsier than they actually are - case/lang/veirs could easily run circles around them, with catchier and more lyrically interesting music to boot - it can get exasperating. But again, that's a problem with the marketing more than the actual songs... but upon a number of relistens I get the impression that the marketing is doing heavy lifting for compositions and production that just isn't all that interesting or organic. If anything, it feels overproduced, and I definitely think Ariel Rechtshaid deserves some blame for that - whenever this record seems like it's on the cusp of letting those firmer, richer guitar tones cut forward, they're supplemented and often overtaken by blocky, often even off-key synths that don't remotely fit, especially when you pair them with the vocal harmonies that are never approaching that sort of discordance. And that happens all across this record, moments where the groove and flow or eccentricity of the band feels more forced than natural - the cluttered squeal and effects around 'Want You Back' and 'Little Of Your Love', the latter song trying for a squonking bit of doowop that HAIM don't really take to well, the abrupt switch to a breathy, warping interlude on 'Nothing's Wrong' that utterly kills the momentum of arguably the best hook here, the odd watery hollowness of the title track that seems to be trying to synthesize a Tom Petty song, and those are most of the tracks I like! 

That's the other issue: after the title track, this record settles into a liquid midtempo vibe where every attempt to break free of it feels stilted and awkward: yes, I was happy we finally got a guitar solo on 'Kept Me Crying', but between the vocal distortion and the utter lack of driving groove, it feels like it was trying to be more raw than it actually is. Same case for the closing track, with its rougher muffled fidelities that can't hide the gloss for too long, or how 'Right Now' tries to really get going in the final minute but every moment where the groove starts to pick up it stalls out. It all feels so clumsy, with none of the looseness that made HAIM appealing, like how the guitars on 'Ready For You' sound so weedy and chintzy, or how hollow 'You Never Knew' feels to supplement its kissoff that makes it by far the least likable song on the record, and that's before you get songs like 'Walking Away' that might as well be alternative R&B tracks and not particularly interesting ones at that. And yes, I get that they're trying for a modern synthesis with the adult contemporary music of the time that's a little smoother, but the material that was good there has stronger writing or at the very least performances that reflected greater investment, and maybe it's a factor of Rechtshaid placing them a little further back than he should, but the vocal harmonies and delivery always seems a little more detached than is probably intended, given the subject matter.

So about those lyrics... okay, I think even HAIM fans will acknowledge that you're going more for the vocal harmonies and atmosphere than what's being said, but I will say that HAIM are taking steps in the right direction here. Not so much a narrative as it is a flow of moods and realizations, as they move from wanting to rebuild a relationship that was probably bad news from the beginning, all through the lack of communication and mixed messages in trying to share something more, all to the stark realization it's probably not going to work because this guy either cheated or has eyes for someone else and moving on. And the line that stands out to me the most is this: 'you know I love to be in love', that constant craving for affection and closeness that you'll hook up with or give second chances to the wrong people. And while some people will highlight how much Lorde embraced similar ideas, there are two problems with that assertion. For one, Lorde seemed a lot more self-aware about the consequences and choices she's making, acknowledging her own intensity, whereas HAIM provides lines like 'was my love too much for you to take' a song before they play the girls who pick up the calls for all the wrong reasons despite things being over. And for another, while Lorde actually can back up that intensity in her delivery and the more sharply descriptive nature of her writing... HAIM just doesn't, and it's an issue of both feeling underwritten and the language used not being all that interesting or descriptive. After all, these are not unfamiliar sentiments, and even the retro soft rock and adult contemporary HAIM are drawing on for this had more interesting lyrical turns of phrase than this does, with barely enough to even imply there could be deeper metaphors. And if you're going to be more simple and direct in the writing, you need to compensate elsewhere with more flair or edge or personality, and that just doesn't translate.

And that's part of the problem: there's a part of me that thinks a lot of this will play much better live than it does on record, ease back on all of the obvious studio gimmicks and focus more on solid enough underlying melodies and hooks. But even on that note I can't help but feel like Something To Tell You just doesn't have the same spark of flavor - modern quirks around a retro pastiche that wasn't all that interesting thirty years ago anyway. And without much in the writing to stand out... I'm thinking an extremely light 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're curious. It's not better than Days Are Gone and for me, yes, a bit of a disappointment, but hey, if I'm right HAIM will at least make this material a little more dynamic live, so if they're playing a festival near you... eh, worth a listen.

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