Counterbalance: Haim’s ‘Days Are Gone’

You know I'm bad at communication, it's the hardest thing for me to do. And it's said, it's the most important part that relationships will go through. So let's just listen to this pop record — it's this week's Counterbalance.
Days Are Gone

Mendelsohn: It’s no secret that I have a soft spot in my heart (or head) for well-executed pop music. So when I pulled up the best of 2013 list on AcclaimedMusic.net, I was pleasantly surprised to find Haim’s Days Are Gone hovering just outside of the top ten. Haim, for the uninitiated, are three sisters, Este, Danielle, and Alana, who hail from California and have been playing music together for most of their young lives (the oldest sister, Este, is 27). These young ladies got their start as part of a family rock group, playing cover songs with their parents at local events. Este and Danielle then went on to spend some time in various other projects including a stint in a prefabricated pop group and various backing roles for a who’s-who in the indie rock world. With the addition of youngest sister Alana to the roster, these ladies finally got around to doing the proper rock group thing and released Days Are Gone.

Full disclosure time — this is probably the last time I will ever listen to this record. But for the past couple of weeks, it has snowed non-stop in my locale and Days Are Gone is about as close to sunny SoCal as I can get so I will take it. And honestly, it’s hard to dislike this album, Klinger. It is a studio masterpiece and a rolling call book of nearly every pop music convention to grace the airwaves for the past 40 years. I am simultaneously thrilled and sort of disgusted that I am thrilled by this record. But before I put down this guilty pleasure, I wanted the chance to subject you to its unrelenting effervescence. You told me last week that you like effervescent pop. Is this effervescent enough for you?

Klinger: I have no idea, Mendelsohn, because all I can think about right now is how impossibly ancient I feel. As I listen to Haim, I feel like you’ve accidentally given me an old Laura Branigan cassette or possibly a Taylor Dayne CD to review this week, and I am completely confused. Because it’s a bafflement to me that anyone could possibly feel enough nostalgia for 1980s pop music to actually attempt to emulate it in their own music. And yet here we are. After listening to Days Are Gone, it’s true that I have songs stuck in my head all day, but those songs are “Tell It to My Heart” and “Self Control” and a mess of other songs I keep hearing on the ’80s station. And that doesn’t make me happy at all. To quote the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, I survived the ’80s one time already — and I don’t recall it all that fondly.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand, having worked with a number of millennials (most of whom are well-meaning Americans with a solid work ethic and excellent personal hygiene), that many of today’s youth are in thrall to go-go ’80s and its various accouterments. And I certainly understand the impulse to yearn for the time that you think you just missed. I’m sure Baby Boomers would openly mock the 1970s nostalgia of, say, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. But knowing that people are nostalgic for my awkward teenage years just makes me feel old, and apparently a little cranky. Also I fear Death Panels.

Mendelsohn: That crystal in your hand should start blinking any day now. Listen, I think you’re way off base here, Klinger. So far off base you might as well be standing in the outfield picking dandelions. I get the whole “this sounds like it came straight out of the 1980s” mentality, because in a way, it does. A lot of Haim’s songs suffer from that sort of washed-over pop sameness that sort of dooms this record in certain way. Maybe it’s the vocals, or Michael Jackson-esque beat or the teenage melodrama lyrical content. I get it. But it’s not just the 1980s coming out of the speakers whenever you turn this record on. You get the smooth sounds of yacht rock, flashes of mid-’90s R&B and hip-hop, and a couple guitar licks that would make Eddie Van Halen proud. And you get all those things from three young women who are writing their own music and pursuing a sound of their choice, the sounds they feel passionately about, in an industry that rewards repetitive, insipid prefabricated drivel spouted by half-dressed mouth pieces. That fascinates me. Three, well-educated, smartly dressed women who play their own instruments, write their own songs, and seem to have no problem pillaging an odd set of influences, all of which ended in a well-regarded pop album.

It’s not like this is some sort of pop oddity. Days Are Gone has garnered enough critical acclaim that it will eventually make the Great List, probably near the bottom, but still on the list. Where are whats-their-faces — Branigan and Dayne? I grew up in the ’80s and I had to look those artists up. They aren’t on the list by the way. I mean, you aren’t exactly wrong, “If I Could Change Your Mind” would have been a huge hit 30 years ago.

Klinger: Yes, this appears to be another case of you and I saying the same things and meaning them in opposite ways. I might also say, “This could have been a hit 30 years ago”, but I’d mean that there’s really not that much going on here, and maybe pop music has taken some strange turns somewhere along the way to end up in a place where not very much has changed. And I’m certainly not suggesting that the smooth pop singers I mentioned were meant to be some sort of standard. I really did mean that this all sounds pretty forgettable to me. Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s great that some young women are writing, recording, and producing their own music, but you know who else did that? Debbie Gibson. Of course, do keep in mind that I am a crotchety old coot and I can’t help relating what I hear to stuff that I’ve heard before. I just wish that Haim didn’t make that so easy.

I’m not writing this band off just yet, though. I think there’s a good amount of potential here, especially when they dial back the synths and strip down the sound a little bit, as they do on “Honey & I”, which really does suggest that they might be the heirs apparent to the adult contemporary stylings of Fleetwood Mac. Also I’m going to need you to be a lot more specific about which guitar licks remind you of Van Halen, because I’ve been up and down this middle of the road and I’m not hearing it at all. You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were letting some smittenishness cloud your objectivity, Mendelsohn. Which one is it? Is it Danielle? I think it’s Danielle.

Mendelsohn: All three of the Haim sisters are very pretty and extremely talented. Although, in my own defense, I’m not sure which one is which. We are both very good at talking about the same thing, in the same way and yet meaning something completely different. You keep tossing off the names of ’80s pop starlets, not without good reason, and I keep telling you that you are wrong, because you are.

Here’s the difference that I find fascinating about this album: critical acclaim. I’ve spent the last four years ranting about the paradox of critical acclaim, trying to unravel what it all means and then this album comes out, gets the gears of the critical industrial complex spinning, and I’m even more confused. Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, Laura Branigan — the list of ’80s pop starlets goes on and on but none of them have the critical cachet. Do you know who does? Cyndi Lauper. Yeah. Cyndi fucking Lauper. Her 1983 album She’s So Unusual is ranked 12th for the year and sits at 983 on the Great List (Days Are Gone is ranked 13th for the year)

So now, you’re asking yourself, “Has Mendelsohn gone crazy?” The answer is yes, but it happened a long time ago and has nothing to do with the critical industrial complex. I think Haim, and the acclaim for Days Are Gone, allows critics to take joy in the simpleness of pop music that they have spent so much time shunning. Haim represents the perfect mixture of pop bliss and pure, authentic talent. They dress right, they make reference to the right artists, they respect the guitar.

Yes, we’ve all “heard” these songs before. The difference is they are coming from a group who knows what they are doing and appreciates the art form. Haim, like the Beatles, are master synthesizers. It also doesn’t hurt that they are pretty and haven’t resorted to swinging naked from a wrecking ball in order to garner attention. They have let their music speak for them and much like Cyndi Lauper, Haim offers critics a chance to enjoy pop excess without sacrificing their morals (the ones they have left, anyway) when it comes to indulging in the lighter side.

And the guitar licks that would make Eddie Van Halen proud, if he could still feel simple human emotions like pride, are buried near the end of “The Wire”, a song I cannot stop listening to and possibly one of the greatest examples of true pop synthesis in the past 30 years. I think that’s when Haim are at their best, when they are synthesizing guitar-driven power pop of the last quarter century and filtering through their unique lens. They could tone down the synth and lay off the drum pads and turn up the guitars, but I think, in co-opting those sounds, they’ve laid claim to their musical heritage and it will only be a matter of time before we see something truly extraordinary.

Klinger: Well huh. You are obviously a man of great passions where this Haim group is concerned. I can’t help but admire that. In fact, your enthusiasm is infectious, and while I’m not quite yet on the trolley here, I respect your judgment enough to reserve my skepticism. I will keep an eye on this group, and perhaps someday I’ll be right there with you. Now you kids get the hell off my lawn.