November 10, 2013
by Christina Strynatka
On Nov. 9, 2013, those Mmmboppin’ kids by the name of Isaac, Taylor and Zac stopped by Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall and showed the city just how much they’ve grown.
Striding on to a bare stage save for a giant cloth sign reading “ANTHEM” to a venue filled with thousands of screaming females, pressed together tighter than a tin of sardines and eagerly waving their hands, the brothers Hanson, were warmly welcomed, having visited Toronto almost a year since they were last here.
The trio wasted no time getting down to business, opening with the fiercely vigorous “Fired Up”, the first song on their 2013 album, Anthem. Dressed in a dapper monochromatic style, Hanson started off the two-hour show at a high level and never looked back.
For those who are curious, yes, they did play their old songs and yes, it had their trademark sound stamped all over it. But credit must be given to the brothers’ immense strengths as singer-songwriters and musicians, for the earlier numbers in their nine-album catalogue have aged with them instead of against them. It’s one thing to write a pop ditty when you’re nine, 11 or 13, and quite another to have it be open to older experiences, voices and interpretations. On that note, Hanson has succeeded wildly, their songs standing as tunes available to both the young and old and ready to be stepped into by a singer from either epoch.
But having grown up on a steady stream of ’90s grunge, teen pop, alternative and hip hop glory, it’s difficult- in theory, at least- to reconcile the image of three fresh-faced, white-bread boys with one of maturing men growing into their own as respected musicians. The ’90s were an era of great musical innovation and exploration, from Nirvana to Sublime, and everything Green Day, Dave Matthews and Incubus in between. So, how exactly does a band like Hanson fit in?
By focusing on quality musicianship and a constant desire to grow.
Make no mistake: what may initially seem like syrupy love-pop ballads and simplistic rhythms disguises a deeper level of music, one that’s readily dismissed as “music light”. But where Hanson differs from other bands is their focus on the future. They have a solid understanding of who they are and a clear vision of where they want their future to be, and are constantly striving to attain it.
Their song “With You in Your Dreams” is but one of many examples. The last song off their first record, Middle of Nowhere, the Tulsa trio first sang it in 1997 with all the cheerful naïveté that befits youth. And having returned to it 16 years later, the stripped-down middle reflects a more melancholic look at loneliness, with the adult-accompanied wisdom of knowing that heartache doesn’t always have to be dressed up in fancy chords and three-part harmonies.
However, one area in which they’re sorely lacking is their stage banter. It’s there, but it’s not there. After 21 years together as a band, the brothers are well-practised enough to know what to say, and when, to get maximum response from the audience; but like too many other musicians, it all feels a little too trite, a little too generic. The one exception was the eldest, Isaac, who joked, “I hate to follow the opening act” after the three performed an a capella song to a mostly hushed crowd.
Despite that, the show was a very solid affair, with Taylor leading the charge and showing why he’s the leader among equals. Although not blessed with a voice as technically sound as the others, he has the rare and innate ability to inject just the right emotion at just the right time into every song. Isaac and Zac, during their respective solos, performed admirably, but there was that certain je ne sais quoi missing from it that the middle sibling had.
And perhaps it’s a coincidence, but their choice to bookend “Mmmbop”, their first hit, with “Get the Girl Back”, their newest, seemed to be less of a personal preference in song lineup and more of a bold juxtapositional statement in their evolution as a band. The styles of each song are about as far apart as you can imagine, with “Mmmbop” a Motown-inspired, catchy melody with youngish lyrics, and “Get” a driving, grooving rhythm.
But if there’s anything the two have in common- that also reflects their trajectory as a band- the former is a microcosmic snapshot of three teens singing about life and love, and the latter picking up the theme as adults.
Whichever the case may be, Hanson isn’t a band that should be written off quite so quickly.