“Something to Tell You”
Anyone who’s been celebrated or taken on as a pet cause by both Taylor Swift and Paul Thomas Anderson must be doing something right. Haim are coming correct with their sophomore album, “Something to Tell You,” a sister-act sequel that betters the original.
It’s not hard to see why Swift adores this family act, seeing how the sibling trio shares her knack for giving emotional ambiguity a pure-pop sugar rush. Anderson’s fandom is fairly easy to trace, too: Even if he switched up movie settings a while ago, he clearly maintains a home-team affection for brazen Valley Village girls, so Haim are his kind of steel magnolias.
To those not yet converted, and maybe even a few who are, Haim can be a little bit baffling. Are the sisters a scrappy rock band or a slick pop act? The answer to this question is, of course, “yes,” with their live inclinations perhaps falling on a different side of that delineation from what happens when they enter a studio. Anyone hoping they’d skew closer to their rock roots with the follow-up to 2013’s “Days Are Gone” may be disappointed by “Something to Tell You,” which doubles down on the sheen and treats electric guitars as almost incidental elements. Maybe someday they’ll make their Steve Albini album (the iconoclastic producer of Nirvana’s relatively raw “In Utero”) and it will be awesome, but right now, they’re choosing to exist in the world of elaborate programming and carefully triple-tracked harmony, and it’s a charmed realm.
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Their touchstones reach across borders. The opening “Want You Back” reveals a Danielle Haim with a voice about as lovely as Sara Bareilles’, albeit a Bareilles who has spent a lot more time absorbing the rhythms of modern-day R&B hits and isn’t afraid of inorganic instrumental beds. In “Walking Away,” where Danielle’s vocals become almost featherweight against the barely there beat set down by guest producer Rostam Batmanglij (of Vampire Weekend fame), you might hear a similarity to the way the Bird and the Bee marry Inara George’s vocals with Greg Kurstin’s electronics. On a more throwback level, “You Never Know” is arguably as good a Buckingham/McVie song as anything on the new Buckingham/McVie album — by virtue of the fact that it answers the musical question of what it’d sound like if ’80s Fleetwood Mac got goosed by a visit from ’80s Michael Jackson. The more overt funk-lite of “Ready for You” does the legacy of Wendy & Lisa proud.
The primary producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, who also happens to be Danielle Haim’s boyfriend, doesn’t place much of a premium on her guitar playing here; she played more lead in the closing moments of the band’s recent appearance on “The Tonight Show” than she seems to in the entirety of this album. That may sound regrettable, but there are other kicks to be had in “Something to Tell You,” which is the sort of album some fans will consider overproduced but which really gives overproduction a good name. The unalloyed bubblegum of “Little of Your Love” benefits from some fairly harsh synth lines from Jellyfish/Beck keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., while strings are used as rhythm in the considerably darker “Found It in Silence.” When an actual lead guitar part finally appears at the end of the seventh track, “Kept Me Crying,” you realize what’s been missing, but it’s arguably more fun for having been held in reserve. And any time it seems like the programming might become the dominant element, in pops Este Haim with a healthy dose of slap bass that firmly reestablishes the analog element.
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But what’s really analog here are the lyrics from (presumably) Danielle, who, while writing in fairly simple terms, manages to nail vividly a variety of relationship crisis points from song to song. The running theme of the album is couples that fail to communicate. “Don’t keep me waiting, say the words that you’re too scared to say,” she pleads in “You Never Know”; in “Walking Away,” “there’s nothing left between us but what we won’t say… say something, say something, say something”; “Found It in Silence” has her finding “both of us holding back, but you were the most guilty of that.” It’s not difficult to accept that personal self-assessment; on record, at least, she’s a great communicator.
P.T. Anderson has directed a 15-minute short, “Valentine,” comprised of footage from the album sessions. One Anderson-helmed clip that’s already been released, a live-in-the-studio version of “Right Now,” is superior to the more polished version that ended up on the new album. The closing “Night So Long” strips away the luster, too, to offer a hint of what that theoretical Albini collaboration could sound like.
But by and large, “Something to Tell You” benefits from those layers of aural loftiness and makes a terrific argument for Haim as a Pop Band, mixing and matching some of their best Top 40 garage-sale finds from decades past with a contemporary gloss that makes complicated truths completely kissable. Even if only in a figurative sense, it rocks.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the official music video for “Want You Back,” the best filmic paean to the Valley since, well, “Magnolia.” Anderson didn’t direct it — Jake Schreier (“Paper Towns”) did — but it’s as if he or Scorsese did a one-take remake of “Foxes” with Haim as the stars, marching down a deserted main drag westward from Casa de Cadillac employing, with minimal but extremely effective choreographic flourishes. If anyone can bring sexy back to Sherman Oaks, it’s Haim.