Looking back, HAIM’s fevered success is a little ridiculous. In the past nine months alone, the three California sisters have topped BBC’s Sound of 2013 poll, signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation, trumped a few hundred thousand bands at SXSW, collaborated with Kid Cudi and Major Lazer, toured with Vampire Weekend and Mumford & Sons, appeared on-stage with Primal Scream, won a diverse crew of fans that includes everyone from Katy Perry, to David Letterman, to Angel Haze, and graced the lineup to pretty much every major music festival across the globe. Those are only the major highlights; in between, they’ve done little things like, y’know, performing for UK prime ministers, learning French from Phoenix, and nabbing cover stories with Spin and LA Weekly. Toss any one of those accomplishments to a young, rising act in America and that’d be more than enough success to celebrate. At this point, they’re grafs in the litany of chapters that make up HAIM’s ensuing storyline. Yet, only now — basically October, the month of ghouls and goblins — are we able to discuss Days Are Gone, the long-awaited, 11-track debut album that’s been promised, teased, and hyped by Este, Alana, and Danielle during every one of their “Holy shit, that was fucking phenomenal” performances this year.
That’s an arresting facet of their narrative: They’ve become more or less a 21st century household name with nary an album behind them. Regardless of the whole singles vs. albums debate (arguably the Roe vs. Wade of music writers), a debut album is a major crutch for a band’s identity. It’s their thesis statement, a gateway for fans, critics, and like-minded individuals to dissect their throughline and walk away either learned or confused. With Days Are Gone, the Haim sisters aren’t awash in mystery, but they’re not exactly forthcoming with: A) what they want to do, or B) who they want to be. Their process in creating music reminds me of those Salad Stories, in which some nameless chef frantically opened up his or her fridge and jumbled a bunch of ingredients to tasty results (See: The Caesar). Casual listens of summer single “The Wire” spark memories of Come on Over-era Shania Twain, the sans-molestation pizzaz of Gary Glitter, and the crunchy mall pop of early Phoenix or pre-LSD MGMT. But, then you scoot on over to “Don’t Save Me”, and all of a sudden you’re listening to Tusk. An inch past that and the album’s titular track teases influences of Prince and Miami Sound Machine.
Take into consideration each Haim sister’s musical pedigree and it makes sense. On stage, they look like the coolest, sexiest, and most straight up rock ‘n’ roll band since The Runaways or Guns N’ Roses, but on record, they’re a well-manicured iTunes library of influences, a rolodex of trampled-upon LPs adored and obsessed over. It helps that their parents — Mordecai and Donna Haim — were inspirational figureheads of melody, musicianship, classic rock, and Americana. As a result, Este absorbed rhythm and percussion at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, Danielle peaced out on school and hit the road alongside both Julian Casablancas and Jenny Lewis, and Alana took notes from both parties. This explains why they’ll gush over traditional pop a la Destiny’s Child, but then also talk shop about Brazilian percussionists and Bulgarian folk. How they do it without an air of pretense is one of their charming hallmarks.
Yet, it’s also one of their few weaknesses. Despite their hip shades, Wiccan hairstyles, and layers of leather, there isn’t a gripping sense of danger to HAIM; instead, it’s feel-good, richly textured, and sharpened music from actual musicians. That should be enough, right? True, but sometimes a little bite goes a long way and often sells the attitude of music that’s greased with it. This qualm surfaces in their newer tracks, where they hop over the fence to different genres and moods. Late album cuts”Let Me Go” and “My Song 5” prowl rather than strut, and it’s in that shift from bouncing to stomping where a touch of ego might inspire more character. The same applies to their couple of meditative exercises. The slick, Kate Bush-inspired R&B of “Go Slow” and “Running If You Call My Name” prove fantastical enough, but Danielle’s conviction rarely matches the passion behind their instruments. Her vocals just hover, sounding as beatific and melodious as any instrument can and should, but without the stony urgency.
And, that’s a slight quibble with the newer material. The tormented pleas of their diamond-cut pop rock — namely, the sparkle on year-end contender “Falling”, the whimsy of spacey reggae anthem “Forever”, and the conversational undertones of live charmer “Honey and I” — take an extended vacay around track seven, never to return. This departure leaves the second half to mutual exploration, where both the band and its newly formed legion of fans shuffle forward, flashlight in tow. Inevitably, that’s what Days Are Gone comes to represent: an outfit who’s only now figuring out its already-sold brand. It’s a conflict that’s challenged this year’s other hyped rookie outfits, like Disclosure, CHVRCHES, and AlunaGeorge. What separates the coven of sisters from their UK contemporaries, however, is that their debut doesn’t define them explicitly. It balances expectations with mystery, aligning their identity with a roulette of vantage points. They could still go anywhere, do anything, and be anyone — proving that days aren’t gone, they’re just beginning. How exciting is that?
Essential Tracks: “Falling”, “Don’t Save Me”, “The Wire”, and “Honey and I”