Album Review: HAIM - Days Are Gone

They’ve been playing together in one form or another since they were kids, so maybe it’s not a surprise that within a year of their first single, Los Angeles’ HAIM feel like natural stars. The three sisters that comprise the band - Danielle, Este, and and Alana - give great interviews. They have hilarious Twitter handles. Este has the world’s best bass face. They asked their tourmates Phoenix to teach them Kanye lyrics in French. But on top of all that, they’re also an excellent live band. Regarding their performance at Sweden’s Way Out West Festival this summer, Stereogum’s Tom Breihan summed it up best by saying, “if you have a music festival and didn’t book them this summer, you fucked up. They were built for this.” When they played Bonnaroo this summer, they didn’t have enough songs to fill an hour-long timeslot, so they just jammed and cracked jokes with each other to fill the fifteen or so minutes they didn’t fill with pop gems and it worked. Not only because they’re nearly Father John Misty-levels of entertaining when they goof around with each other, but also they’re also technically proficient on their instruments, so even when they’re messing around, they’re pretty likable. That same onstage charisma runs through Days Are Gone, the band’s long awaited debut album, but surprisingly, the off-the-cuff nature of their live show doesn’t completely transfer to record. Every element of Days Are Gone - the songwriting, the performances, the production - feels carefully sculpted and arranged, but that hardly means it’s lifeless.

Days Are Gone was produced by James Ford, Ludwig Göransson, and Ariel Rechtsaid, three A-list producers who know how to make songs sound simultaneously immediate and layered. (Their collective resume for 2013 alone includes AM, Modern Vampires of the City, and the score for a Camera d’Or-nominated film.) As a result of this multiple producer approach, the album sounds great, but plays like a collection of great singles instead of a thematically cohesive statement. That would be an issue for a lot of bands, but for HAIM, it’s a clever move, primarily because Days Are Gone is full of great singles. (Three of the tracks here were singles prior to Days‘ release cycle, and there are at least another three that are worthy contenders for the album’s second single after “The Wire”.) HAIM are a quintessentially poptimist group who eagerly wear their influences on their sleeves without a hint of any pretense or irony. Sheryl Crow, Fleetwood Mac, Miley Cyrus, TLC, and Kendrick Lamar are among the artists HAIM has cited as influences in the past few months, and their love for all kinds of immediate, melodic pop music shines through in their songwriting, and they accordingly cover quite a few bases in the album’s twelve tracks. “The Wire” moves with the stadium rock crunch, the title track injects early ’90s house into a disco-based thumper, the breezy “Honey & I” is already a live staple and sounds just as good on record, and the trio channel their inner R&B goddesses on “Let Me Go”, “If I Could Change Your Mind”, and “Running If You Call My Name”. Furthermore, the previously released material remains great in the context of the album, especially “Falling”, which seems more and more like one of the year’s best pop singles as the year goes on.

It’s not difficult to spot the band’s influences on Days Are Gone, and HAIM don’t make any qualms about it, likely because they’re top-notch synthesists who like to show their work. They’re loose and ostentatious onstage, but HAIM are meticulous writers and producers. With the exception of “Honey & I”, each song sounds like it was carefully constructed in the studio. Every instrument track (especially the drums) and vocal line sounds like a cog in the song’s machine, which possibly explains why the album gestated for close to 14 months. The end result was worth the wait though, because it’s not often that a new band gets the chance (and the budget) to screw around in the studio and discover new sounds. Much like drummer Dash Hutton is their live companion, the studio is the fourth HAIM sister on Days Are Gone. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that “Falling” and “Don’t Save Me” have Corgan/Shields numbers of instrumental tracks layered on top of each other, or that there are at least five vocal tracks in the chorus of “My Song 5″. In fact, it would be somewhat charming to see the studio notes for Days Are Gone because despite its meticulous construction, there’s an underlying eagerness to the album. There may not be any dirty joke interludes in between songs like their live show, but Days Are Gone sounds like it was a hell of a lot of fun to make, so it’s fun to listen to. The sisters obviously left any pretense or irony behind a long time ago, so the album sounds exactly what they were aiming for: a stylistically diverse record that’s united by an undying and unabashed love for pop hooks.

In their second NME cover story, Danielle is quoted as saying “We know what we don’t want to be”, which makes a lot of sense after listening to Days Are Gone. The trio cover so much ground that it seems like the few boundaries they place on themselves are ones of where not to go, rather than dictating where they can explore. Like their former tourmates Florence + The Machine’s debut Lungs, Days Are Gone isn’t an album as much as it is a singles compilation, but it’s also a document of a band entering the studio for the first time, eagerly trying out as many directions as possible while learning how to adjust to their newfound role as capital-”R” rock stars. On her sophomore effort, the polarizing Ceremonials, Florence bet the house on her ability to channel massive arena-sized emotions into actual arenas, and her gamble paid off. Love it or hate it, Ceremonials is a much more focused record, and as a result, Florence will almost certainly be a festival headliner on her next album cycle. It’s easy to see HAIM taking the same road - when you’ve got pop smarts as undeniable as those on “The Wire” and “Falling”, continuing down such a wide-appealing path seems like the obvious decision - but Days Are Gone’s meticulous construction implies that it’s just as likely that they’ll embrace their inner studio rat, aiming to challenge themselves as songwriters and producers rather than performers. In either case, Days Are Gone is a charming and highly enjoyable opening statement that establishes the group as one that seems to be more excited for the days to come than those already past.

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