The three long-haired sisters of L.A.'s Haim look as if they’re from the 1960s, crib lyrics from the 1970s and prize musical tricks from the 1980s. Yet the trio’s major-label debut, “Days Are Gone,” may be the freshest-sounding album you’ll hear all year. How does that work?
Background and context both figure into it. Este, Danielle and Alana Haim grew up in the San Fernando Valley playing in a cover band, Rockinhaim, with their parents, who taught them to love -- and to study -- the timeless songwriting verities embedded in tunes by the Beatles and the Eagles. (Danielle, Haim’s lead singer, nods to “Lyin’ Eyes” in “If I Could Change Your Mind.”)
The family act eventually folded more recent stuff into its set -- Prince, the Cars, Eurythmics -- and that appears to have given the sisters an abiding devotion to the sonic signatures of early-’80s pop ‘n’ rock: slap bass, mechanized percussion, the palm-muted one-string guitar chug that was disco’s gift to a generation of live bands. As Danielle puts it in “Falling”: “I’m a slave to the sound.”
Fast-forward to 2013, when everyone else in pop is in love with that sound too, from Robin Thicke to Daft Punk to Miley Cyrus, whose “Wrecking Ball” -- recently covered by Haim -- feels as if it might have been written for Pat Benatar. By cleverly pulling from the right portion of the past, then, Haim now seems utterly on time. (Consider the lukewarm reception given two records that employed a similar palette -- Rilo Kiley’s “Under the Blacklight” and “Phrazes for the Young” by Julian Casablancas of the Strokes -- before listeners were ready to embrace it.)
But beneath those beautifully glazed keyboard textures, Haim also has songs -- irresistible ones with swinging rhythms (“The Wire”) and sturdy but effervescent melodies (“Don’t Save Me”) that no doubt make Mom and Dad proud.
And the sisters are as economical as they are crafty. Although the interlocking funk licks in “Forever” might have led the band to extend the song past its natural life, Haim keeps it tight, which is particularly admirable at a time when Justin Timberlake appears determined to stretch the average Top 40 single to six minutes or more.
Some critics have called the band’s lyrics inconsequential, a perceived limitation that the sisters cop to in “The Wire,” where Danielle sings, “You know I’m bad at communication / It’s the hardest thing for me to do.”
To my ears, though, these songs offer a convincing re-creation of the passive-aggressive indecision endemic to the band’s twentysomething peer group (and to Glenn Frey). “Sometimes I wish I didn’t miss you at all / Those days are gone,” the women sing in the lustrous title track, which Haim co-wrote with the British electro-soul star Jessie Ware; later, they crystallize the sentiment in the album’s closer, promising, “I’ll run away if you call my name.”
But even if you can’t get with that, there’s no denying the sisters’ appealingly breathy voices or their delightfully idiosyncratic delivery. (More singers should pronounce all four syllables of the word “naturally,” as Alana does in “The Wire.”) Savvy recyclers committed to their own era, they make what worked yesterday work again today.
“Days Are Gone”
Three and a half stars (out of four)