Brothers Gonna Work It Out

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Brothers Gonna Work It Out

1 May 2000

By James Diers

The Hanson’s are back. Older, wiser, and-yes-cuter. Can these geezers rule the pop world they helped launch three years ago with “MMMBop”?

It’s Valentine’s Day, that cruelest of secular holidays, and a bevy of girls who’ve logged on for a live Yahoo chat with the brothers Hanson are dying to know: “Are there any lucky ladies in your lives?”

Somewhere out there in the real world, teen siblings Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson sit at the ready, amiably fielding this and other decidedly non-musical questions with the aid of a cyber-moderator. “How many valentines did you get?” “Why did you cut your hair?” “What was the last movie you saw?” “What kinds of snacks do you guys like?” Not exactly a probing inquiry into a platinum-selling band’s creative process. But compared to the scores of rogue postings from various chat-room miscreants (“This is dumb,” “Ike is a perv,” “Taylor pierced his dick”), the boys’ loving praise of grandma’s homemade Chex mix comes as a welcome bit of trivia.

Days later, the threesome touches down in Dallas for a rapid round of radio spots, photos, and a live chat of the in-person variety with Request. It’s been nearly three years since the kid-tested, Billboard-approved “MMMBop” lifted the band’s auspicious debut, Middle of Nowhere, into the international pop stratosphere, and in that time, the brothers have become visibly at ease with the business of self-promotion. Not the least bit fazed by their wee-hour wake-up call, the red-eyed commute from their native Tulsa, Oklahoma, the doting stylists, or the repeated click of the camera, they kick back comfortably into stuffed chairs at an upscale Dallas hotel aptly called the Mansion.

Digital Age tactics suck as webcasts and live Internet chats certainly help to further their cause, but notoriety in the wired world also has its price: Rough demo versions of the songs on Hanson’s new This Time Around (Island) were circulating on the Internet as early as last summer, presumably leaked by some feverish fan with a mole in the industry.

“It makes it really hard to just keep things low-key,” eldest brother Isaac says of the online Hanson hysteria.

“We knew it was bad when we got a dog,” fresh-faced Taylor adds. “Like, no one had seen it-I can’t even imagine how anybody found out-and it was instantly on the Internet. The name of the dog, everything. It was crazy.”

Yep, crazy. Crazy like the summer of 1997, when the “MMMBop” outbreak placed a trio of well-mannered, long-haired, home-schooled Okies at the top of The Village’s Voice’s annual “Pazz & Jop” critics poll for Single of the Year, beating out the formidable likes of Puff Daddy, the Spice Girls, Chumbawamba, and Oasis. Half the fun of the song’s phenomenal success was in watching the grown-up critical establishment scramble to make sense of the mania. The Voice’s Robert Christgau was moved to declare that “not since vintage Madonna has trifling pop so perfectly demanded high-powered exegesis.” Er…yep, crazy.

Of course, for the younger fans-those invested in stuff like favorite snacks and family dogs-nothing on Middle of Nowhere needed translation. Written and performed primarily by the boys themselves, the album was an instantly chewable, chart-worthy set of organic pop delights, as DIY-minded as some of punk rock’s finest, but with cloying R&B harmonies and pubescent blue-eyed soul instead of bad eye-makeup and middle fingers. Hitting the Top 40 consciousness well ahead of ‘N Sync and the like, it was a purer strain of teen pop that nipped cynicism in the bud and quite likely sent thousands of adolescents straight to guitar lessons or school-band sign-ups.

No question, the Hanson’s still have mad love for their underage fan base. But on the long-awaited This Time Around (its original fall 1999 release date was pushed back after early sessions with Ric Ocasek were scrapped for still-vague reasons), the MMMBoys re-enter the pop universe with a taller taste in rock, a more refined sense of song, and a readiness to push their way well inside adult alternative territory. Collaborating with Middle producer Stephen Lironi, the trio enlisted the blues-rooted Jonny Lang and John Popper to help bolster their R&B instincts. That the title track-a piano-driven slice of Southern harmony that would sound at home in the middle of a Black Crowes album- was selected as the first U.S. single should be proof enough that these kids aren’t interested in being confined to the candy rack.

“I feel really good about that time that’s gone by (since the last album),” says Taylor, whose voice has already aged a notch closer to the brawny Motown soul singers he was reared on. “In a way, I think the fact that we’ve grown up a bit makes it easier for some people to accept us. Sometimes it scared people that it could be three really young guys who were seemingly that squeaky-clean making good, real music. Having grown up a little bit maybe helps some people accept it.”

“Wait,” youngest member Zac interjects with a smirk. “So our selling point is ‘We’re Older-You Can Accept It’?!” Laughs all around.

A cuddly 11-year-old back when the group first broke, drummer Zac would now trounce his band mates in a Most Affected by Puberty Since Our Last World Tour contest. On the tail end of a major growth spurt and a voice change more drastic than Taylor’s, he’s still the spastic cut-up of the bunch, prodding the conversation every few minutes with goofy impressions, toothy gags, and the occasional belch-on-command.

“Maybe this time it’ll be, ‘Oh, they’re too hard!” Zac jokes, imagining what kind of pointed criticism awaits his band’s natural evolution.”‘They’re not bubble-gummy enough! They cut their hair and they went RAWK!’”

The less boisterous but more talkative Taylor sees the slings and arrows coming, too, but doesn’t seem the least bit threatened. “If somebody wants to put you down, they’ll find a reason to do it,” he says matter-of-factly. “Whether you’re Britney Spears or the Black Crowes.”

“Whether they’re saying you got fake boobs or that you’re too old,” Isaac agrees. “There’s plenty of ammunition for people to go at us, too. Like we’re trying too hard to be cool or something.” He shrugs, then cracks a contented smile. At 19, Isaac doesn’t pull fraternal rank on his younger sibs, but rather balances their caffeinated chatter is a stoic sense of simple truth. He wears this newly confident reserve well, even on the album. “Love Song” and “Hand in Hand” both showcase his versatile pipes and melodic moxie, the latter spiced up with a Santana-flavored solo by Lang.

“Dying to be Alive,” another mid-tempo standout, benefits greatly from the presence of a full gospel choir led by Rose Stone, first-rate vocal arranger and veteran of Sly & the Family Stone.

“You don’t have soul when you meet Rose Stone,” Isaac recalls with reverence.
“We felt transparent after meeting them,” Taylor says. “Like, ‘We’re beyond white boys. We’re clear.’”

So here’s the question: Will the millions of young listeners (and a good many of their guardians) who bopped aboard the early Hanson bandwagon be as excited to ride along with this more seasoned set? Is there room in the Top 40 for a crew of infinitely gracious Christian teens who sound something like Matchbox 20 and nothing like Christina Aguilera? Do the average Yahoo chat cat know her Rose Stone from her Stone Roses?

“It’s kinda funny,” Zac chuckles, “because we’ve always grown up knowing the old music. I remember one time a friend of ours cam over while we were listening to the Jackson Five. He’s like, ‘Who is this band?’ and I’m like, ‘The Jackson Five,’ and he’s like, ‘Who are they?’ and I’m like, ‘Are you an idiot?!’”

Mind you, the Hanson boys don’t take their affection for classic soul, pop, and R&B entirely for granted. They still share a bedroom-and, consequently, a stereo- but they’re not so insulated they think the whole world can immediately latch onto the old-time influences that permeate their music. They’re willing to help listeners get it.

Even with state-of-the-art production and some wholly modern flourishes, there’s no guarantee that pop-loving minors will get into This Time Around. After all, there’s plenty of over-the-counter bubblegum out there for those who’d just as soon stay put in musical middle school. But nature has a funny way of taking the wheel, whether you’re a major-label recording artist or an average teen with an appetite for diversion. Or both.

“If it’s either crack or video games, I think I’ll go with the video games.” Zac is referring to his Sony PlayStation habit, which may or may not be spiraling out of control. If VH1 is desperate to produce a Behind the Music on Hanson, maybe this bit of not-so-dirty laundry will satisfy the “heart-rending battle with addiction” prerequisite. Indeed, for Zac, the most alluring aspect of the band’s upcoming Japanese tour is a chance to test drive the new PlayStation 2, six months before it hits the states.

He’s still bantering with his brothers about the technical specs of the system when their publicist steps into the room and points at her watch. There’s a plane chartered back to Tulsa. And, Lord and Billboard willing, lots of other planes charted to lots of other places. Again.

Source: Request Magazine

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