Women In Music Pt. III (Universal)
One of the many – many, many – great things about Jenny Lewis is she sounds like a distillation of so much of her home city, Los Angeles, through five or so decades of its music, and yet is both very much right now and very much Jenny Lewis. Everyone can see where Lewis has come from; but nobody can write like her.
Haim – sisters Danielle, Alana and Este Haim - already feel like that is their path, refashioning not just their near-home town (they grew up in the San Fernando Valley and claim they barely left it to go “over the hill” to LA until their late teens), but a few other stops on the highways, in ways that feel like history and present are indistinguishable in them and genres mean little.
On their first two albums, Days Are Gone in 2013 – by which time the eldest sister, Danielle, had played guitar in Jenny Lewis’ band, and spent some time accompanying the decidedly non-Angeleno, Julian Casablancas of The Strokes – and 2017’s Something To Tell You, they moved between blues and pop, R&B and electronica, ‘70s west coast MOR and quasi-metal, harmony layers and Timbaland shapes, and one memorable take on Fleetwood Mac (UK blues edition)’s Oh Well, which floored audiences in Australia in 2014.
(“I love that Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac,” Danielle told me back then, while on their second tour here in a year. “That song is the one where we can cut loose and get all bluesy on.”)
This third album is in one way a further refinement of this process, right down to the far from throwaway bonus tracks, Hallelujah (no, not Cohen’s) which is casually gorgeous acoustic ladies of the canyon folk, Now I’m In It, that channels early ‘90s pop-with-light-electro like Savage Garden with a cocky strut, and Summer Girl, which repurposes Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side for more direct sun than tenement shadows.
The record begins with a sax run you can imagine being played by jazz-loving LA homicide detective Harry Bosch in his overhanging house overlooking the city, that folds into a loping, reggae-filtered-through-St-Vincent bit of grooved pop called Los Angeles. And it ends with a leaning-back blues guitar staying ahead of wearied night time vocals track that suggests both Prince and Bonnie Raitt, in FUBT.
But both these songs also bring forward something new for Haim: a clear cast of clouds across the usual sun-drenched fare. There’s more obvious hurt in these songs than previously shown, more flawed relationships and misjudged characters, and more comfort in revealing those.
Through the refined ‘80s electronic pop of I Know Alone, Haim sound more Sheffield than LA as we hear of someone isolated not just from her friends (“Calling all my friends, but they won’t pick up”) and her home (“Woke up at the wheel on the edge of town/It all looked the same, every mile”) but herself (“Some things never grow/I know alone/Like no one else does”).
Under the clanging guitar and chugging keep-driving rhythm of Up From A Dream is an uneasy feeling that mixes insomnia with a dab of paranoia in a haze, which is also in the hard surface funk pop of All That Ever Mattered, while the layer of pre-Blue Joni Mitchell (questioning and querulous voice and the energy of solo guitar painting the mood, and the mood is dark) over Man From The Magazine is as strong as the pungent lashing of a journalist not just sleazy but empty.
The band’s writing development is just as clear in the sliding ‘70s groove of The Steps, where Danielle sings of a out-of-sync couple who share a bed but not a sensibility (“you know that I don’t need your help/Do you understand?/You don’t understand me baby”), as it is in the smoothed out early ‘80s shuffle of Don’t Wanna that trips you out of the comfort zone with its cool imagery (“Gotta leave the engine running in the front seat/In my mama’s winter coat”) running into something more fragile (“All our problems on the surface, is it worth this?/I don’t think it’s too late”).
If the Caribbean-lite Another Try feels like a misstep and I’ve Been Down doesn’t do quite enough to lift it from its Beck-ish hip hop/folk breakdown, they also serve as the contrast highlighting how many more of the album’s musical and emotional freshenings do more than bring to a mind a familiar cityscape, going instead to a new perspective.