After what feels like forever, the debut Haim album is finally here. It will come as a shock to fans of their live show, won over by their raw mix of blues guitar, close vocal harmony and big sister Este’s ‘bass face’. ‘Days Are Gone’ comprises some of their best live tracks (‘Forever’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Let Me Go’) and some songs that haven’t been played live (‘If I Could Change Your Mind’, ‘Days Are Gone’, ‘My Song 5’) and lacquers them all with a thick coat of studio gloss.
Part of the reason the wait has seemed so long is that Este, Danielle and Alana hit the jackpot relatively early. They won people over with their debut EP ‘Forever’ and some rapturously received performances at 2012’s SXSW. Their label, Polydor, no doubt sensing they might have hit the jackpot too, wheeled in big-shot producers Ariel Rechtshaid (Major Lazer, Vampire Weekend, Usher) and James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence + The Machine, Simian Mobile Disco), who added more bells and whistles than you’ll find in the Hamleys window display at Christmas. By the time Haim released their big summer single, ‘The Wire’, it had mutated into a hammy slice of country-pop, complete with string section and Auto-Tuned coda. Puzzled bloggers noted that it sounded like Shania Twain.
Haim are no strangers to pop’s transformative powers, nor to the heavy-handed approach of major record labels. The three sisters were first enlisted by their mum and dad to play classic rock and Motown covers in the family band at children’s hospitals and deli stores at their home in the San Fernando Valley. When Danielle and Este were scouted to play in manufactured girl group Valli Girls, they were prescribed hair extensions and caricature personalities and made to play teen-pop (see the toe-curling videos on YouTube). Unsurprisingly, they quit, and Danielle later earned her leather jacket as a touring guitarist for Julian Casablancas.
Now, they are transformed. Their early, critically adored mix of rock’n’roll guitars and ’90s R&B harmonies is toned down in favour of straight power pop, full of ’80s flourishes. The thundering drums on ‘Running If You Call My Name’ is totally Phil Collins, while ‘If I Could Change Your Mind’ is adorned with the kind of glistening synths that wouldn’t be out of place on a Whitney Houston record.
All those cooks in the kitchen mean Haim could have ended up making ‘Tusk’ before they’d finished their ‘Rumours’. Their ace is their songwriting. We might have been waiting 18 months for the album, but Haim have been working towards this since they were barely strong enough to hold a guitar, and over time they’ve written more good tunes than most bands manage in a whole career.
Early single ‘Forever’ is paced a mere touch faster, lent momentum by its staccato melodies, while ‘Go Slow’ is still the perfect ballad, that repeated syllable in the bridge pushing forward into a belting chorus. Speaking of belters, there’s ‘Let Me Go’, a cry for freedom that sounds like something Florence + The Machine could have recorded if she’d gone to work with Third Man Records. It captures the essence of a break-up album that is less about men and more about the search for independence. ‘Days Are Gone’ gives a very earnest portrait of three people learning how to shape their own destinies.
The live question will hang over Haim as they start touring. Will people who fall for them because of this album still ‘get’ a stripped-back set? As they grow, the gap between ‘live’ Haim and ‘album’ Haim must narrow. For now, Haim are a rock band who’ve made one of the best pop albums you’ll hear all year.