Photo by Michael Lavine
Like many of us, comedian Jay Mohr has a Hanson fixation. Thats the hottest kid Ive seen in my life, he said, referring to vocalist Taylor, the, um, prettiest of the singing siblings. My friends say, Hes a boy, and I go, I dont care, hes the hottest little girl Ive ever seen. He should be on the tennis tour. When he graduates, Im going to be at the ceremony with a van with tinted windows and a six-pack. Get on the 15 and hit Vegas with my Hanson boy.
NAMBLA overtones notwithstanding, it was hard to look at young Tay, all of 14 in the MMMBop video, and not think, Whos that righteous keyboard-playing babe? That was 1997, Boy Band ground zero, and the teenybop world was agrip in Hansonmania, which, as far as hysterical groundswells go, was actually kind of amusing.
It helped that the clan made for good copy: They were good Christian boys, raised all clean and squeaky in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There was oldest brother Isaac, 16, going through an awkward public puberty yet graciously taking a back seat to frontboy Tay, with 11-year-old drummer Zac Hansons Danny Partridge along for comic relief. Beyond the Tiger Beat dossier, however, MMMBop still buzzed inside your head, no matter what your age or sexual preference. Hanson parlayed their Time-Life History of Rock frame of reference into critical props for their big-label debut, Middle of Nowhere, a CD of sugary, melodic bubble yum.
But three years is a lifetime in the shelf life of a pop phenomenon. In that time, Boy Bands have gone the meaty, cheesy route, led by the emasculated pop funk of N Sync, whose gazillion-selling sophomore album, No Strings Attached, makes the Jackson Fiveish pop soul of Middle of Nowhere sound like Sly and the Family Stone. Strings, which moved 2.4 million units in its first week of release, is merely another example (see: Britney Spears) of the textbook Orlando, Florida, sound sterile, manufactured beats, calculated melodrama, and slicker than the pores of a million teenage faces as choreographed as an episode of The Mickey Mouse Club.
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Yet before you can say 98 Degrees, Hansons back, and these boys want to kick your ass. This Time Around is as damn near perfect as an innocuous pop record can be. The basic storyline is still warm n cuddly for the teen demo: Zacs had a growth spurt, and Isaac wisely got a haircut, but the best news is that Tays voice has changed, without any Peter Bradyesque side effects. His former girly-boy vocals now possess the makings of an authentic Southern rock snarl, not unlike Box Topsera Alex Chilton. Give the kid a few million cigarettes and a few gallons of Jack Daniels, and he could wind up the Gregg Allman of the 21st century.
Though the band still sound like boys in a plastic bubble oblivious of any musical trends of the last three decades, save a well-placed scratch here and there courtesy of Beck turntablist DJ Swamp it works to their advantage, their naiveté feeling raw and fresh when placed alongside their Boy brethren. Produced by Steven Lironi (who also oversaw most of Nowhere), the brothers leave the songwriting hacks at home this time around, writing the albums 13 tracks without help from the likes of Desmond Child. While lyrically the band are still mostly in teen-luv mode, theyve at least gone a few steps beyond the hand-holding, cotton-candy vibe of Nowhere into heavy petting at the drive-in.
The albums blistering opener, You Never Know, immediately alerts your ears to the fact that this is no longer your little sisters Hanson. Anchored by creepy-crawly harmonies and tasty guitar from fellow teen prodigy Jonny Lang, the song, basically a reworking of the Motown standard Money, is a hard diss directed at a girl who just doesnt get it. If Only works AM magic and transcends its puppydog emotion with a big fat hook, while Runaway Run borders on contemporary this ode to a crush sounds like the Cars circa 1978 (Ric Ocasek was the albums original producer). The strongest track is the tough-ass Dying To Be Alive, which, though a thinly veiled homage to God, is delivered with such earnest ferocity that it comes off like they really mean it, man.
Will the little girls understand? Who cares? Hanson doesnt seem to. This Time Around sounds like a band planting its feet for the long haul. In fact, dont be surprised if, in 10 years, when Hanson releases its White Album, Zac starts bitching to the press about having to play MMMBop every night. Hey, babe, it beats the alternative you could always join the Backstreet Boys for a regular Tuesday-night gig in Branson, Missouri.