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Haim Are Out of Time and Right on Time

On their new album, the all-sister rock band’s sound remains as transportive and classic as ever. But can they become major stars in this pop music environment?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

If Fleetwood Mac had been composed of siblings instead of ex-lovers, they might have sounded something like Haim. Helmed by multi-instrumentalist sisters who’ve been performing together since they were kids, the long-tressed California trio make ambitiously arranged, expertly crafted anthems about longing and desire — but at the core of their sound is a sense of togetherness rather than tension. “I said we were opposite lovers,” lead vocalist Danielle Haim sings on “Want You Back,” the cavernous lead-off track from their second album, Something to Tell You; like a Greek chorus of Supremes, her sisters, Este and Alana, offer a backup vocal of agreement: “Said it from the beginning.”

Although their ages range from 25 to 31, the Haim sisters have that telepathic, finish-each-other’s-sentences vibe of triplets, only their secret language is composed of chords, percussion hits, and harmonies. There’s a near-hermetic tightness to their sound, and a general pattern to the way their songs build: A Haim song typically begins with Danielle’s low voice crooning into a void, and then as it progresses her sisters assemble — like a girl gang of superheroes — and give a kind of communal strength to what she’s been singing about. By the end she no longer sounds so alone. On “Want You Back,” Danielle’s solo plea has turned into something as riotous and plural as a small parade. This is the sound of sisterhood.

Haim get that Fleetwood Mac comparison a lot, and because they’re bewitchingly coifed women, people assume that it means they sound like Stevie Nicks. But listen to the punchy, huffing vocals and the down-to-earth stomp of the percussion: There’s much more Lindsey Buckingham in Haim’s sound than anything. (Or even Peter Green: One of the many covers in Haim’s arsenal is “Oh Well.”) If their sonic reference points seem parent-approved, it’s no coincidence: Playing music in the Haim household was always a family affair. When Alana (who’s still nicknamed “Baby Haim”) was just 4 years old, their parents assembled a family band called — wait for it — RockinHaim. “Our parents started RockinHaim because they wanted a family activity that we could do together instead of camping,” Alana recalled in a 2013 interview. “We played every geeky cover you can play — a bunch of Santana, some Billy Joel, Eagles, Rolling Stones, Tina Turner. But I loved all those songs. That was basically our childhood.”

With such a precocious pedigree, it did not take long for the Haim sisters to develop serious chops. On guitar, Danielle could wail (in her early 20s, before forming Haim, she worked as a touring guitarist for artists like Julian Casablancas and Jenny Lewis), Este would study videos of Bootsy Collins’s slap-bass technique, and Baby Haim mastered every percussion instrument she could get her hands on. Around the age that other, less musically inclined children fly the coop, the Haim sisters formed a new band, without their parents. Simply called Haim, the group played local gigs for years. Their relentless gigging eventually paid off, though: When they finally put out an album — their excellent 2013 debut, Days Are Gone — they seemed so sure of themselves, one of those new bands that seemed to have fallen, fully formed, directly from the sky.

Haim were — and remain — an anomaly in a cultural moment that has little interest in the classic signifiers of rock bands. And this commitment to their own retro aesthetic has been both their charm and their albatross. The Haim sisters are deeply, earnestly devoted to the craft of making really good old-fashioned pop-rock songs when that sort of commitment is hardly fashionable, and so this passion makes them feel endearingly genuine. But at the same time, it’s also kept them in a kind of in-between zone with regard to success: They’re too rockish to ascend to mainstream music’s A-list in 2017 (even though they got a significant boost when Taylor Swift brought them as the opening act on her blockbuster 1989 tour), and they’re a little too polished and clean-cut to be wholly accepted by rock purists. Haim’s propulsive 2013 song “The Wire” was one of the best singles to come out that year, and should have been one of those songs you’d hear every time you turned on the radio that summer. That it never became quite as ubiquitous as it should have been felt more the fault of an industry that had no idea what to do with a big, mainstream rock band than any fault of the almost freakishly talented Haim sisters.

Something to Tell You, Haim’s new album, has quite a few moments that might compel you to use a hairbrush as a microphone, but the most obvious is the doo-wop throwback “Little of Your Love.” The guitars gleam, the low end thumps like a swooning heart, and Danielle’s soulful lead vocal is nowhere near too proud to beg. As the third song on the album, “Little of Your Love” comes smack in the middle of a near-perfect opening run that stretches all the way to “You Never Knew,” a dreamy, midtempo reverie cowritten with Blood Orange mastermind Dev Hynes. Another highlight is the galloping “Nothing’s Wrong,” which re-creates those vintage Buckingham vibes up until a sudden pressure drop in the bridge, during which the song transforms into a sparse collage of sharp breaths and pitch-shifted vocals.

That’s the mark of the innovative producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who worked with Haim on Days Are Gone and is credited on all but one song off the new album. Rechtshaid’s touch is light but noticeable. He favors smooth, polished sounds that occasionally sound synthetic enough to warp: One of the most successful songs he’s produced to date is Usher’s “Climax” (he’s also worked with Adele, Sky Ferreira, and Vampire Weekend on their great 2013 record Modern Vampires of the City). Something to Tell You gives Rechtshaid a little more room to experiment than the relatively straightforward Days Are Gone did, and for a handful of songs he’s brought on Rostam Batmanglij, the former Vampire Weekend member who helped give Modern Vampires its diffuse, wonderfully strange sound. Haim’s songs are always lush, but Rechtshaid’s signature move is often to subtract a few layers at some point in the track — to let the bones show. This gives a clean, buoyant energy to a song like “Ready for You,” but occasionally the arrangements feel a little too bare, as on the skeletal first single, “Right Now,” which has almost as much negative space as song.

Haim have always been less captivating on ballads than they are on sunny uptempo numbers, though Days Are Gone provided a few exceptions to that rule, like the simmering send-off, “My Song 5.” Something to Tell You does little to solve this problem, though, and the back half of the album feels anticlimactic. The least memorable songs come toward the end, “Found It in Silence” and “Walking Away,” and they go on for long enough that the limitations of the band’s scope become suddenly apparent. For all the fullness of their sound, Haim’s lyrics feel incongruously one-dimensional. I’m not sure there’s ever been a Haim song about something other than “a relationship,” painted in the broadest strokes. The song titles themselves — “Nothing’s Wrong,” “Night So Long,” “Kept Me Crying” — have an interchangeable genericism that the lyrics do little to complicate. There is something refreshing about the active stance of the female perspective in Haim’s songs; the singer is more often the one breaking hearts or acting indecisive, a necessary correction to a history of girl group songs in which the action always felt like something being done to the singer by a more powerful man. But for a group that cuts such a powerful, forward-thinking stance in a male-dominated space, it feels a tad frustrating that a Haim album plays out like a slow ping-pong game of I love him, I love him not.

It’s not that I expect Haim to be singing about something other than love lost and won (roughly the content of 99.9 percent of songs), I just wish they did so with a little more detail, personality, and even grit. Something to Tell You proves once again that Haim are a very, very good band, but there’s still something holding them back from being a great one — and I think it’s the tension of opposing forces. A sense of togetherness, harmony, and unity make Haim what they are, but in a strange way it prevents their songs from ever becoming barbed enough to say anything particularly specific or sharp. There is a vibe about Haim of practice made perfect, of a parent’s prophecy fulfilled, of the landing stuck. Something to Tell You is a precision-cut summer pop-rock album, but its hands aren’t dirty enough to dig deep. Rumors is Rumors not because everybody agreed with one another, but because the dissenting opinion — the very heart the singer broke — was often the one singing backup.