First Take: Haim, Dwight Yoakam, Drake

Haim are three sisters from Los Angeles who don’t appear to be related to the actor Corey Haim. They were in a band with their parents when they were younger, playing cover tunes at charity events, and two of the sisters were in a band called Valli Girls, that apparently had a Pat Benatar/Madonna vibe and had some success. But I’m not writing about them because of that. The review in the New York Times this morning, by Jon Caramanica, was so positive, evoking Benatar and Madonna and Sheena Easton and Laura Branigan, and finishing: “Thanks to its overwhelming and triumphant exuberance and the care with which it embraces its palette of influences, Haim has made itself impossible to hate,” that I got a little excited. It sounded like it might be good.

Playing the record the first time, I was stunned by the giant machine of a production that envelopes it, full of synths and booming drums, spastic tempo changes and processed voices erupting out of nowhere. The following video illustrates the issue. It starts with a few girls in a band. Haim. The feel is indy, the sound is spare, airy, and then suddenly the music builds, there’s a shot of the band playing together in a small room and that’s when it hit me: they aren’t making any of the many noises in the mix. They’re overwhelmed by all the other stuff, and the center of the song stops being the singer and her words and her bandmates, and becomes all the blinks, handclaps, moans, bleeps, boops and everything else that has nothing to do with being a band (but does have a lot to do with making a certain kind of giant pop record).

At heart these are simple songs that may or may not have value as such. There’s no way to tell. But they are certainly overwhelmed by the apparatus that surrounds them here. This is different than 80s rock, which used its big production to pump up big songs as songs. There were a lot of cheesy arrangements in the 80s, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” wasn’t subtle, but the big arrangements complemented the songs. There was verse, chorus, and bridge, and a sound that lashed the hook to one part of it and jammed it into the part of your brain that can’t resist. Fire away! This is different.

I went and did some reading about Haim, gleaned the above biographical facts, and lots more about how much they love Fleetwood Mac, but also love modern R&B sounds and are trying to combine them together. And it is that modern style, with hooks on top of hooks, scores of little hooks, that are, for me, just too much icing on the Frappuccino Mocha Latte with Caramel Pretzels, or whatever. Caramanica was sort of right. When the Haims aren’t being overwhelmed by the production, there isn’t much to hate. But the bits that are likeable are often long gone before you can grab hold.

I saw Dwight Yoakam and his band about 10 years ago and he put on a great live show. The band was tight, who doesn’t like pedal steel playing, and his tunes are tuneful, rhythmic, at least professional and sometimes personal. But listening to the record he was pumping then, I had the same problem I’ve always had with him. I can’t find emotional entry into his technically sharp and smart and catchy songs.

What impressed me that night was that there were plenty of people at Irving Plaza who were freaked out of their mind to be at this show. They LOVED Dwight, knew every one of his songs and sang along, and couldn’t believe their good fortune being there. And I wondered why? I’ve been listening to him for a long time, since the early 80s I guess, and the formula hasn’t changed. This greatest hits disk is a collection of Dwight’s songs since 2000. I find the arrangements tight, like classical California Country music (Dwight says his musical father is Buck Owens) melded with a clean LA studio sound, but I felt shut out and distant about the songs until Willie Nelson started singing on the third track. Suddenly the sun rose, the flowers bloomed, the doob was passed, and I felt at home and welcome. This was revelatory. The next song is sung by Michelle Branch, and the same deal. I liked it! Afterwards, back to the same old Dwight, kind of like hitting your head against the window of an appealing but locked car.

I can’t blame Dwight, it may well be me (so many were loving him at Irving Plaza), but if you have a similar reaction, welcome to the club. And I think it is Dwight. He’s smart, he’s talented, he’s clever, but he’s just not there as a performer. To me, anyways.

Drake has a new album. I know he’s perhaps the most popular rap artist in the world, which is understandable because he’s Canadian and they have the best vocalists up there, no matter the genre. Right?

The only way I can explain his popularity is that he liberally steals good ideas from other people. He’s got a malleable and kind of silky tenor. If you were dumbstruck you might find him seductive even. I think he’s good looking, but don’t quote me on that.

I don’t want to get all cranky, but if your music is deliberative and unoriginal and your words are banal and self serving, what have you got? Your good looks?

The song “Own It” actually sounds great, if it wasn’t for Drake and his lyrics here I could buy the mix. But my issue with hip hop is that as an avenue off the street it’s a dark hard crucible. People make execrable decisions, demonstrate awful values, because it’s a world of be bold or go home. And it’s a world that values hardness and dark stories. Somehow Drake has made it work in spades, those his stories seem more privileged than hard, but in any case he doesn’t have to go home. I can’t explain it, but I can judge. He is like the Celine Dion of rap. It sounds good, the emotions are big, but nobody ever actually had them. Or if they did it was because they don’t understand this world at all.

The elpee’s first song, “Tuscan Leather,” is built on a speeded up sample that is a Kanye West signature from years ago. Unoriginal, unfocused, and fine to steal if you do something with it. But what’s the story on this track? I don’t know. But Drake must dig it to place it first, so here it is:

Drake is not cake.

2 thoughts on “First Take: Haim, Dwight Yoakam, Drake

  1. This website is turning into American Top 40. I know I’ve not been participating, so I’ll just occasionally complain. I’m gonna get a “Lorde Sucks” shirt.

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