If asked how the sisters of Haim keep their cool in an ever-expanding circle of Billboard-classified musicians and celebrity friends, while nightly growing their list of headlining credentials on some of the world’s most recognized marquees, you might say these three young women from L.A.’s suburbs are probably faking it. Trying to be cool, as their touring mates this fall, French mega-rock sensation Phoenix - sing in their latest album Bankrupt!’s fourth track. Just a year after being picked out of global obscurity by the UK’s music scene thanks to DJ Zane Lowe, Haim has been dubbed as pop’s hottest item by everyone from the mainstream charts to indie royalty such as Pitchfork and Spin. But if you think about it, Haim have been a band - in every sense of that word - for just as long, if not longer, than their French peers.
While Phoenix traces its origins to the French experimental rock scene circa 1995, westwards and one continent over, the Haim girls were playing the local church and fair circuit in California’s sunny San Fernando Valley in their family band, Rockinhaim, around the same time. In fact, though the members of Phoenix have an average decade over Haim’s oldest member, Este, the two bands warrant as many similarities as they do differences. Phoenix scrapped along as a band for years before breaking through in 2009 with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, while Haim the band has been in the works since the early 2000s, with its current moniker and lineup having been instated over five years prior. The two groups have a similar sense of patchy, classic-rock experimentation mixed with a healthy dash of pop-reverent appropo; Phoenix bemused/horrified the world earlier this year with their surprise R. Kelly duo, which either over or underwhelmed last year’s Tupac hologram, depending on which side of the evasive conversation you fall. Haim, on the other hand, do so with a debut LP that throws back and leans into pop culture simultaneously.
And maybe that’s because ⅔ of Haim grew up largely in the Nineties - an era defined by the rise and fall of celebrity-centered pop. Before Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and the inescapable boyband fad imploded, it was Celine, Shania, Mariah and Whitney who ruled pop for a shining moment and provided the background music for that decade.
A listen to Days Are Gone summons that feeling you get in 2013 when watching the opening credits of movies like Jerry Maguire, Say Anything, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, those scenes of Adaptation set in Los Angeles. Call it a vivid beckoning to our not-so-distant past, filled with recollections of big hair, clunky cell-phones, and boxier, internet-barren computers, and the unforgettable, unabashed pairings of denim, sneakers and windbreakers. A nostalgia for those last fleeting moments before Y2K, as told by those hardly conscious enough to grasp its finality.
Because anyone born on or after 1990 has a legitimate grasp over what made Eighties music collectively so cool. Its residual bleed over into the trial-and-error of 90s-era music was a large part of it. But for most, it was hard to grasp the genius borne out of that period unless you had some sort of guiding factor. The mercurial voices of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, the swooning love-crimes of Tom Petty, the quintessential pop performance as perfected by Michael Jackson, the edgy swipes out of Joan Jett’s corner may all have been lost upon a young child as the Spice Girls, Britney, and Backstreet Boys quickly took over (no offense BSB, I still love you). Haim had the advantage in that their parents were just those genuinely music-adoring people who wouldn’t let them forget what was happening on the periphery of mainstream’s focus. Which is why as a band, they are capable of straddling that rare generational line where 90s baby of the trio, Alana, can admire rappers like Kendrick Lamar and 2Chainz and still think Mariah Carey is idol-worthy and have it all come off as a part of the indie-retro-cool gig at the same time.
Even a cursory listen to Days Are Gone clearly confirms that the sisters have accomplished just that. Thematically, the album sounds something like a post post-breakup book of rock and pop matter soaked in homages to the past three decades of music. Matter-wise, it scatters both sensations of treading in deep waters and emerging ashore in brighter, shallower stretches. Lyrics about overextended love run syrupy at times: in powerful burners like “Go Slow” and the final, pursed-lipped coldness of “Let Me Go,” the writing follows, if vaguely, the halting process of moving past a relationship’s early naïveté towards its final moments of self-reckoning. The pattern is wrought with nostalgia, but it’s a sentiment ultimately overcome by the album’s overpowering theme of forward motion.
Sometimes I wish I didn´t miss you at all
Those days are gone
Holding on, holding on, holding on
Those days are gone,
Danielle sings on the title track, which is positioned flatteringly as the record’s centerfold. Days Are Gone both opens and closes with songs relying on similar storylines. “Forever,” the album’s snappy first cut, briskly moves the leaving and maturing along, while closer “Running When You Call My Name” willfully sweeps the lingering past away. But the anthemic drama and effective song arranging is by far outshone - no, smacked out of the park - by the singular edge to Haim’s sword, which cuts with glimmering, saccharine sentiments blasting from over a decade ago. The penultimate example bursts through on “If I Could Change Your Mind,” a shuffling, perfectly-executed power-pop throwback that could have easily stood alongside such radio giants as “Sledgehammer” and “Billie Jean.” Following close on its heels is “Honey And I,” the sugary, shutter-shock ballad complete with such cheesy, wizened reflections that it sounds like something you might’ve heard in the dentist’s waiting room or at the car dealership some weekend in 1994. (Read: "Love wasn’t what I thought it once was/But I thought it once was/Telling each other everything/Picking up your wedding rings.”)
Then, the carmelized chorus appears,
"Cause my honey and I, yeah yeah
My honey and I, my honey and I, my honey and I
D-doing just fine, yeah”
And in these thrice-repeated hooks and irresistable “do-doing,” which seems to have been in hiding for quite some time, the light that opens up your understanding to the rest of the album - and just why these girls have become such a sensation in 2013 - beams clear. They have become revolutionary because of how nicely familiar they sound to a decade prior. It was the sappiness of the 80s and 90s that won everyone over - and Haim executes this at the moment when nostalgia for that time was never stronger.
The band’s coming of age song-writing is expertly arranged against airtight production by James Ford - whose hollowing, thorough expertise the band shares with Arctic Monkeys - while the sisters send love to their musical heroes both past and present. Stylistically, glimpses into Danielle’s close observance of unofficial mentor and The Stroke’s bandleader Julian Casablancas flash apparent; prominently, in cuts “Don’t Save Me” and “Forever,” and even more so in her impressively internalized live delivery. And although their retro sound is what makes Haim so appealing, the trio makes sure to toss a few to their contemporary peers in their buzzy, refreshing alt-indie summer hit, “The Wire,” and the bass-heavy “My Song 5.” The latter, a booming, woozy track primed for its radio takeover in a few months, is one that is bound to make Justin Timberlake, who the girls just surpassed in album sales this week, smile in spite of any bruised feelings.
According to the sisters, the album is one that has been a lifetime in the band’s making: “The Wire” went through several reincarnations before hitting home in its current state. But a close listen makes you realize that without a lifetime of listening and practice, this album would never have resonated so strongly at any other time than today.
Just what made the Nineties so enviable? It’s an airy question whose answer can ultimately be deconstructed to a feeling, and that feeling is still unsure of itself. Even now, with more than a decade between us, its hard to distinguish why we sometimes long for a period that we culturally tried to distance ourselves from right after it happened. But with the disconnect that has come with the exponential development of the Internet and wireless technology, it might just be that we’re missing that period of organic, if sometimes cheesy, connection before. When you had to pick up the phone and call, when you were made to physically interact with the people in your life because there were no tiny machines connecting you to them. With their reminiscent appeal, these sisters have brought us back to the brink of that time, and maybe that’s why they are so adored. Lifting Haim out of the case is like taking ten years off your life.