Haim’s Something to Tell You Is All Show

On their new album, "They are here to rock you like Queen or Bruce or Prince."

I wasn’t initially a Haim fan. Days Are Gone sounded “like a Burger King commercial” to my “I work at a record store and despise the radio” ears in 2013. I couldn’t stand the sheen and polish. Then, I realized I liked Taylor Swift (up to Red). Then, I saw Haim open for Taylor in a stadium, and about 40 thousand people (many of them teen girls) deliriously screamed as the band covered Led Zeppelin; made me like the guitar work of Led Zeppelin; changed my mind. Like, hard-180 changed my mind.

The cover was good, sure, as was their version of a pre-Stevie/Christine Fleetwood Mac jam “Oh Well,” and the band was really reveling in the performance. They were jumping around on stage and making weird faces while they played—they were having fun, letting loose in that subtle but controlled way great performers do, where they’re actually not letting loose at all, but holding the energy of the show in the palm of their enormous proverbial stage-show hand, so that it is actually the audience who can really let loose and and have fun. I had completely misunderstood this band. They were not Burger King at all, they were showmen (yes, “showmen,” because nobody says “showwomen,” come on).

I played their debut album, Days Are Gone, over and over, marveling at the way Haim captured that stadium energy in their recordings. Lip-synching, shimmying, and doing exaggerated hand movements (you can point in a way that says, “No, buddy, let me TELL you something,” or wave in way that says, “I am parting the Red Sea and, also, I’m in a discotheque” to an imaginary audience) to “Falling,” “If I Could Change Your Mind,” and “Don’t Save Me” is still one of my favorite pastimes.

Normally, I’m wary of sophomore albums, but I’d been waiting for more Haim for years, so jamming this one ASAP was a no-brainer. My needs as a fan are both demanding and conflicted: It has to be exactly the same! (It should never be.) It won’t be as good if it’s different! (Comparatively hierarchical fandom = a great way to fall out of love with music fast). A lesser band might have collapsed under the pressure to deliver something solid after a debut as well-received as 2013’s Days Are Gone. But Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim, who are all talented multi-instrumentalists, have basically been in training to be The World’s Greatest Rock Band since childhood. A lesser band, they are not. The sisters took this long to return, with the excellent new album Something to Tell You, because they cared about making the songs good.

The mood on STTY is more nuanced and composed than on the band’s debut, Days Are Gone. Emotionally, we don’t scale the dizzying highs and lows of tracks, like DAG’s “Falling” and “My Song 5.” But “You Never Knew,” a new track co-written with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, is a delightful surprise. (Sincerely hope this track foreshadows further collaborations from this perfect pairing in the future.) Danielle sings, “I need to hear you say it—was my love too much for you to take?” Of course it was: Alana explains this song was about having a job that keeps them on the road, which is often too much for prospective partners. “You never knew what was good for you” is an extremely satisfying kiss-off. STTY is not an album that’s going to drag you anywhere. STTY is more of a cool guy (if you hadn’t guessed from the leather jackets in the “Want You Back” video)—it’s gonna pull up alongside you in a sick ride and see if you wanna hop in and go for a drive. No pressure, babe. Up to you.

Haim’s vibe is classic—one that has plainly stated, “I am a rocker, and I don’t care about most stuff,” since the days of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the MC5. Danielle wears a Sabbath shirt in the “Want You Back” video, Este has talked about being removed from a Prince concert for trying to climb onstage, and Narduwar impressed Alana during an interview with a rare Elvis live record (she collects them avidly). This band excels at rock like star students. And that’s not a bad thing! Being the best takes a lifetime of dedication.

Everything about Haim is precise. It makes sense that all three sisters learned to play the drums before any other instrument, lending a rhythmic, percussive quality to even their most melodic vocal hooks—as on “Nothing’s Wrong” and “Ready For You.” “Little Of Your Love” features one of my favorite guitar moments on Something to Tell You. It is a moment at the end of the track that illustrates the essence of Haim’s cool—the element which makes them so immediately likeable in the first place. Danielle’s guitar, in all its flanger-tinged glory, triumphantly takes center stage, only for the song to just…what? Fade out. What the hell, was my first thought. Give me more shredding! Then I realized that this is exactly what I love about this band: evidence of the solo is there if you want to hear it, but that’s not what this song is about. Haim songs are never boringly conceived around a “look how GOOD I am at this”—style guitar lick, or other musical party trick. I truly hate music that only functions to advertise technical prowess. Unfortunately, too many rockers make music this way, which is likely responsible for how rock ’n’ roll got so tired and embarrassing in the first place. I don’t care how well you can play if you can’t give me personality; storytelling; the dramas of human existence. At the end of the day, I just wanna be moved. I wanna be infected, even. “Little Of Your Love” is that kind of single, with its “Jack and Diane” style handclaps—one that gets into my bloodstream like caffeine.

Ambitious production choices are becoming a hallmark of the Haim sound. The low-pitched vocal backups are playful; the drums are expansive and dramatic—the looping breaths that serve as percussion on “Nothing’s Wrong” for instance, are punchy and daring. The band has inspired comparisons to Writing’s On The Wall–era Destiny’s Child, but I don’t hear that as much as I hear hints of Joan Armatrading in Haim’s record collection; a voice as unmistakable as Christine McVie’s; even some of Lindsey Buckingham’s studio experimentalism on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Haim weaves together seemingly unrelated influences like they’re old family friends. Their imagery nods to Full Moon Fever–era Tom Petty, but they’ve got a LinnDrum, like the Human League, or Prince.

I’ve got a bone to pick with the annoying and well-worn “Haim = Wilson-Phillips” comparison. Comparing Haim to Wilson-Phillips is a lot like equating any underground band with a guitar and women with “riot grrrl.” It’s dismissive, inaccurate, and says more about the reference points of person making the comparison than the music itself. Likening a band of multi-instrumentalists to a vocal group also erases a majority of what Haim is about—for the love of god, they do a lot more than sing. “I only have two hands and I’m playing 14 different instruments,” Alana has said in a Pitchfork interview. “If I had another set of hands I could rule the world!” Danielle’s husky vocals, peppered with frequent, percussive ha!s (as on “Want You Back,” “Little of Your Love,” and many live videos), don’t sound like the breathy, lilting soft pop of “Hold On.” The production styles these bands employ share little in common, beyond the appearance of (completely different-sounding) synthesizers. Look, I get where you’re coming from, but it’s imprecise: these bands aren’t similar. Moratorium on the comparison, please and thank you.

Contrary to what the album’s title suggests, Haim isn’t here to tell you anything, they are here for show business (see what I did there, thanks, I’ll be here all night). They are here to rock you like Queen or Bruce or Prince. I’m pretty satisfied by this follow-up, and considering all my second-album wariness, that’s quite a tip of the hat to Haim’s reliable, consistently well-crafted sound. None of the tracks on Something to Tell You are filler—and none are too risky. There’s no room for unpredictability on a sophomore album meant to illustrate that their brilliant debut wasn’t a fluke. Something to Tell You showcases 11 well-written pop songs, perfectly arranged and and produced in rock ’n’ roll traditionalism. If LP3 gets weirder, I’ll be here for it (a friend of mine is hoping LP3 will be Haim’s Like Flies On Sherbert) but listeners expecting STTY to move into uncharted waters should consider this wasn’t the time or place to experiment—it was the place to lay the groundwork for that possibility in the future.

(Photo Credit: Audrey Melton)

Much like P. Diddy, Katie Alice Greer is a musician and record mogul. Her band Priests released Nothing Feels Natural in 2017 on their own label Sister Polygon, and now her solo debut, Barbarism, is out on Four Four Records. You can follow her on Twitter here.