Photo by Michael Lavine

Like many of us, comedian Jay Mohr has a Hanson fixation. “That’s the hottest kid I’ve seen in my life,” he said, referring to vocalist Taylor, the, um, prettiest of the singing siblings. “My friends say, ‘He’s a boy,’ and I go, ‘I don’t care, he’s the hottest little girl I’ve ever seen.’ He should be on the tennis tour. When he graduates, I’m 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, Who’s 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 — Hanson’s 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 Five–ish 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.

Yet before you can say 98 Degrees, Hanson’s 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: Zac’s had a growth spurt, and Isaac wisely got a haircut, but the best news is that Tay’s voice has changed, without any Peter Brady–esque side effects. His former girly-boy vocals now possess the makings of an authentic Southern rock snarl, not unlike Box Tops–era Alex Chilton. Give the kid a few million cigarettes and a few gallons of Jack Daniel’s, 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 album’s 13 tracks without “help” from the likes of Desmond Child. While lyrically the band are still mostly in teen-luv mode, they’ve at least gone a few steps beyond the hand-holding, cotton-candy vibe of Nowhere into heavy petting at the drive-in.

The album’s blistering opener, “You Never Know,” immediately alerts your ears to the fact that this is no longer your little sister’s 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 doesn’t 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 album’s 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 doesn’t seem to. This Time Around sounds like a band planting its feet for the long haul. In fact, don’t 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.

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