Hanson’s Underneath is Near Perfect

I guarantee that no one, in their wildest dreams, would’ve thought that Hanson would’ve grown into the group they are today. How did three blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenage boys from Oklahoma go from writing the most irritating, annoying, nonsensical pop song in music history to crafting one of the strongest pop/rock records to appear in 2004? Easily. They grew up.

Back in the good ol’ days that were 1999, bubblegum pop was sadly the musical rage sweeping the nation and Hanson were right in the middle of it all, helping to lead the Calgary of fluff pop. They were seemingly just another pretty-faced boy band. But they had an edge. They performed a unique brand of fluff pop; a self-contained kind of fluff pop. The boys wrote, produced, and played all their own material, proving to be quite a nice alternative to the BSB’s and *NSYNC’s of the genre for many.

And considering the way they were idolized around the globe, essentially, Hanson were the Beatles of bubblegum pop. But time proved to deal the boys a cruel hand and as they grew older right alongside their boy band compatriots, the world saw the BSB’s and *NSYNC’s mature and retain success while Hanson slowly evolved and saw their relevancy drop faster than Tara Reid’s dress strap. But why when Hanson were equally if not more so talented than their competition? Simple.

No matter how mature the BSB’s and *NSYNC’s got, and no matter how much their sound evolved, all their music was collinear. Tweak a few production knobs, put a little bass in the voice, enhance the sexual innuendo, throw in a couple light swears and voila! You’ve just created mature bubblegum pop. Albeit more tolerable and entertaining, all their music still ran in the same musical vein.

But when it came to their evolution, Hanson took a more visceral approach and used their carnal pop/rock, singer/songwriting instincts to distance themselves further from their fluff pop past and establish themselves as substantial musicians. In the process, turning off most of their musical fan base and relegating them to the footnotes of pop music obscurity. However, in their case, this has proven to be a good thing for Hanson. Instead of pandering to radio and retail and churning out catchy pop fodder in exchange for record sales and notoriety, Hanson have been left to their own tendencies and are thus able to create records they can be proud of, such as the barely-year old Underneath.

Conducting a sharp compare/contrast between then and now proves just how far the guys have truly come. Who’d have thought that the boys responsible for the most irritating, annoying, nonsensical pop song in music history would grow up to record one of the smartest pop/rock songs in recent history, Penny & Me? Taylor’s strong yet distinct vocals effortlessly carry the song’s emotional, romantic weight while Isaac’s churning guitars keep the song rollicking full throttle as Zac’s understated drumming provides a catchy, memorable thump. The perfect choice for a lead single, that song perfectly encapsulates the sound of the record; smart, catchy, hook-laden, effortless pop/rock.

And with that formula, the record is replete with songs either relishing in its poppiness, drowning in its rockiness or striding contentedly down the middle. Strong Enough To Break is definitely an opener with promise. The jangly acoustic guitar at the beginning carries promise that salvation from the conceptual misery of the song will come in the form of the throttled electric guitars, spry percussion, and Taylor’s wistful yet hopeful vocals, as he spouts off intelligent, life-pondering lyrics that carry a sense of attachment in all of us. Slightly cryptic without an air of confusion, if nothing more, Hanson will leave you more than impressed with their level of maturity by record’s end.

Dancin’ In The Wind is one of the album’s rockier moments. The electric guitars have a little more voltage, the drums have more speed and kick, the melody’s a little rougher and the vocals seem to have a heavier cadence to them.

Second single, Lost Without Each Other, follows in the same vein. Co-written and produced by Gregg Alexander (founder of now-defunct 1-hit wonders New Radicals), the song has more of a rollicking, rockabilly vibe to it. The tempo is faster and catchier, the instrumentation is polished and efficient, and Taylor’s vocals, while subtly longing and restless, inject the song with just the right amount of fun without cheapening the tense subject matter.

Fans of the rollicking vibe can turn to Crazy Beautiful as well. The revved-up instrumentation, with additional horns, give the song a heavy-handed, slight big-band effect that matches well with Taylor’s happily frustrated vocals and the song’s adept lyricism, quite nicely depicting the complexities of a certain lady’s personality. Fun, carefree, and stupid happy, this proves Hanson can cut loose with the best of them without selling their musical soul to the mainstream pop devil.

In fact, the album has its fair share of substantial happy-go-lucky moments. Get Up & Go encourages the listener to do just that. The revving production, with infectious tambourines and handclaps, sing-a-long chorus and overall bubbly zest of the record makes immobility impossible.

And despite it’s tad uneven melody, Hey, effervescent pop/rock sensibility more than makes up for it. The terse verses, blaring hooks, wild production and overall fun vibe works itself well into the flow of the album. But, as with quite a few artists, Hanson’s best material comes when they slow down the pace and take things down a more introspective and reflective path.

Littlest brother/drummer Zac gets both a vocal and acoustic guitar turn on the pensive Misery. His falsetto has a surprisingly soothing bluesy/jazzy-lite tone to it that fits well within the context of the scaled-down production and melancholic mood of the song, seeing him ponder over an unhealthy relationship. His second vocal turn, found on Broken Angel, doesn’t fare as well.

The acoustic piano for the first 1:35 causes the song and melody to plod and once the rest of the busy instrumentation seeps in and crowds the song, Zac’s falsetto vocals don’t carry enough weight to really be heard among the noise (thank goodness for lyric sheets!). When he tries to infuse a little more soul in his voice for the chorus, his attempts sound overwrought and the end result accounts for the album’s most boring moment.

Not to be left out, Isaac also gets a solo vocal turn with the mid-tempo rocker Deeper. Sounding like a lighter, less bluesy/soulful Jonny Lang, Isaac, too, has a surprisingly strong vocal tone that manages to ride the busy guitars, drums, and Wurlitzer well, only enhancing their effects on the sing-a-long chorus. However, neither brother is a match for Taylor’s powerful, memorable voice.

The slow-moving pace of When You’re Gone would most likely sound overlong and plodding had either brother sang it. But because Taylor’s voice injects enough passion and emotion into the melody and soundscape, the song rolls along at a comfortable pace. And there are two songs on this record that only Taylor could’ve made; the title track and the finale.

Underneath is just waiting for its country remake. Already having a subtle country sheen to it, the pensive acoustic guitars, melodic piano licks, meditative percussion, and somber strings just beg for a country twinge to be applied. And Taylor’s heartfelt lyricism, when coupled with his aggrieved and imploring vocal performance, makes for some of the most heartfelt and heartrending lyrics to be heard in quite some time. Definitely the album’s shining moment when you realize Hanson’s crossed the line into serious musicianship.

And if that’s not convincing enough, take a listen at the eerie Beatles vibe that gently emanates from the album ender, Believe. Starting with, and needing no more, than the somber piano and light djembe taps, once the militant percussion, earnest guitars and all else creep in, they only enhance the record’s overall influence and effect. Yet again, that heartfelt and heartrending lyricism carries an understated weight and overall magnitude we all can somewhat connect to as Taylor searches for some semblance of something worth believing in.

The impression that this song, and the overall album, made is one that packs quite a wallop. Hanson took all the steps necessary to distance themselves as far as they could from their fluff pop past and the great thing about that is the fact that they were able to do so with no conceivable effort. This music sounds like the music Hanson was born to make and the music I think most everyone knew, but no one wanted to admit, they would inevitably would. So if making great, memorable music like this means having to sacrifice their record sales and pop music relevance, then so be it. In the end, Hanson are the ones who will be remembered and respected for their craft.

1-hit wonders. Has-beens. Residents on the outskirts of pop music relevance. Artists flourishing in pop music obscurity. Look past that and you’ll find talent. You’ll find good music. You’ll find great music. You’ll find HansonâÂ?¦underneath.

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