Friday, June 26, 2020

Review: Women in Music Pt. III • Haim




Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim are making the best music of their careers. To do it, they had to find themselves again.

The last time we heard from the sisters, they had just added a slick pop flair to their vintage soft rock. Their sophomore record, Something to Tell You, is laid back and effortlessly cool – maybe too much so. As they recorded and promoted the record, they suffered in the background: Diabetes tried to dominate Este’s schedule, while Danielle tended to Ariel Rechtshaid – her boyfriend and the band’s primary producer – after a cancer diagnosis. All three women cite exhaustion from extensive touring and frustration over blatant sexism they endure in the rock music industry. After glossing over their personal crises in days past, they’ve since learned to confront them, translate them into song, and in the process, find peace in their wake. Given this context, the devastating undercurrent throughout their newest album, Women in Music Pt. III, feels both overdue and amplified.

"Man from the magazine, what did you say? 'Do you make the same faces in bed?' Hey, man, what kind of question is that?" the sisters sing on "Man from the Magazine," a folksy  response to a music journalist's scummy slight toward Este in an early interview. The sisters have good reason to be upset, and they unleash their feelings through interesting and instantly gratifying vocal arrangements and analog instrumental work. Honoring and elevating Haim's artistic identity, Women in Music Pt. III often juxtaposes its percussive foundation and crushing lyrical touchstones with a smooth brass, bass, and guitar top-coat. For as much relief that can be felt through every pounded beat, woozy guitar riff, and open harmony stanza throughout "The Steps," album closer "Summer Girl" is just as successful without much more than a sax, an exposed bass line, and a hushed vow of steadiness to a struggling partner. Booty call anthem "3 AM," meanwhile, does both: Its pre-chorus emulates the tantalizing allure that comes from a potential midnight hook-up before its chorus comes stomping down with a reality check. 

Through a masterful sense for musical dynamics, these three women know when and how to stoke the coals and throw water on the flame: Their electric guitar, bass, and drum work on "Up From a Dream" results in a heavyweight cut with a shredding guitar solo, and similarly, career highlight "Now I’m in It" culminates in a thunderstorm of tight-knit harmonies, modest electronic flourishes, and a thick bass line. "Don’t Wanna" triumphs in a sunnier fashion when it piles on twangy mandolin and full-bodied keys to fill out the mix. But there’s power in the understated, as well, when the sisters swoop into acoustic and mid-tempo environments: "Los Angeles" opens the record with an easygoing guitar skitter and drumbeat, and "Gasoline" evokes some great '90s adult contemporary memories. "Hallelujah," a back-to-basics acoustic track, may even be among the album's most gripping, easily topping any other song with which it shares a title, as the sisters share their mutual appreciation for each other.

In a recent podcast interview with Pitchfork, the Haim sisters gushed at length over two legacy acts: Stevie Nicks, who introduced herself to them while blaring Haim’s first record through a portable speaker in her hand, and the late Prince. Their echoes can be heard on Women in Music Pt. III – Nicks’ incredible soft rock and unshakable spirit are overt inspirations, while Prince’s unadulterated sense of rhythm and organic funk is stronger here than any previous Haim record. The sisters collage together tracks not only with pieces from musical heroes both past and present, but with clear musical intuition on what just sounds right – regardless of genre construction. Their sidesteps into sad banger territory ("I Know Alone," "All That Ever Mattered") and reggae undertones ("Another Try"), for example, can still be traced back to the same lineage. In that sense, Women in Music Pt. III feels like a contemporary statement and a longstanding testament simultaneously.

At nearly an hour long, Women in Music Pt. III is also a towering testament, at that – and not a single moment feels inessential. Danielle steps forward more firmly as the band’s pseudo-frontwoman in a traditional sense, but the three women’s talents are balanced and spotlit in their own rights. They each prove to be crucial to the record’s success: Danielle earns co-producer credit on every song and takes responsibility for a myriad of instrumentation. With this album’s dependency on sturdy underlying grooves, Este’s sublime bass work dictates each track’s mood board. And though Alana’s instrumental contribution shouldn’t be underplayed, some of the record’s most enthralling moments transpire when Alana’s vocal harmonies radiate out from behind her sister. The very best recorded display of their collective synergy and musical force, Women in Music Pt. III reflects three women who – both metaphorically and literally – have hit their stride.

Women in Music Pt. III is available now under Columbia Records.

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Maira Gall