Hanson's latest: not just teen spirit

Review: A driving, bluesy rock style separates this boy band from 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys.

May 09, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Deciding whether Hanson still counts as teen pop depends in large part on how you define the genre.

If you think "teen pop" is simply pop music made by teen-agers, then the brothers Hanson clearly qualify. Even though three years have passed since "Mmm-bop" put these young Okies on the map, the members of Hanson remain in their teens. (Isaac is 19, Taylor 17, and Zac is 14, in case you're keeping score at home.)

If, on the other hand, you believe that the phrase "teen pop" connotes a style more than a demographic, you may want to find a different pigeonhole for Hanson. Because the brothers' newest album, "This Time Around" (Island 314 542 383, arriving in stores today) sounds nothing like the music made by such boy bands as 'N Sync, 98 Degrees and the Backstreet Boys.

There are no soul harmony ballads, no pneumatic dance tunes, no white-boy rap. None of Hanson's songs were recorded in Sweden, nor do any feature cameos by Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes. There are no shout-outs anywhere, to anyone.

Instead, what we get is driving, blues-edged, Latin-tinged rock and roll -- a sound associated more with Steve Winwood than with anyone currently seen on MTV's "Total Request Live." (It's worth noting, by the way, that when Winwood was a teen he sang and played keyboards, just like Taylor Hanson, in a band led by his older brother.)

This is not to say Hanson has dropped pop from its musical vocabulary. There's plenty of infectious cheer in the harmonica-spiked chorus to "If Only," while "I Wish I Was There" is packed with major key uplift. Nor has the band gone retro, as the incessant turntable scratching of DJ Swamp makes annoyingly clear.

But there's no mistaking the fact that Hanson is following its own musical path. Unlike the other boy bands, these guys are players as well as singers, and "This Time Around" makes sure to exploit the brothers' instrumental ability.

The album's title track makes that much plain. An ambitious, elegiac rocker, it sounds more like the Black Crowes than the Backstreet Boys with its sumptuous gospel harmonies and snarling guitar solo (provided by guest prodigy Johnny Lang). But it isn't just the classic rock touches that make the song seem a step beyond typical Top-40 fare; Hanson has worked so much drama into its whisper-to-a-scream arrangement that it's obvious the song was intended as a Major Statement.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to say what, exactly, that statement is.

As eloquent as the track's lush soundscapes and shifting dynamics are, the lyrics are a jumble of sentimental nonsense, the sort of thing that would only seem deep to those who rank "Free Bird" with Wordsworth.

Words are without doubt this band's Achilles heel, so much so that you may find yourself wishing you didn't understand English. After all, the ache in Taylor's voice in "Save Me" is so much more vivid and evocative than the words he's singing that you almost wind up resenting the greeting-card banality of the lyrics.

Far better to stick with material like "Can't Stop," where the simple minded catch-phrase "can't stop thinking about you" is merely a hook, a verbal anchor for the descending minor-chord progression the song hangs on. Despite the turntable scratch and occasional hip-hop touches, the track is almost a throwback to the blues-groove jams Santana or War used to record way back before these boys were born.

But Hanson would rather sing over the groove than launch into long, meandering solos. Indeed, there are only a handful of instrumental breaks on the album, and none lasts longer than eight bars. (Blues Traveler has intros that go longer than that.)

So however much the arrangements might hint that the boys in Hanson want to rock, the songs themselves remain wedded to the pop aesthetic -- even if the kind of pop they play can't be called "teen pop."

Hanson

This Time Around (Island 314 542 383)

Sun score: * * *

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