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CD REVIEW:

UNDERNEATH
Hanson

Review by Michael Jacobson

“Look around and tell me what you see…

You’ll find me underneath.”

I’m a 34 year old Hanson fan and proud of it.

I know that may come as a surprise to some of our regular readers who know me as someone who gripes and complains about the likes of N SYNC, the Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears while pining for my good old fashioned classic rock and soul.  But you shouldn’t be…that’s entirely the point.  Hanson, even from their beginning, was less the former and more the latter.

These three brothers were never some producer’s fabricated boy band.  They were serious writers, musicians and producers who made the kind of music they loved.  They were never looking to fit into any trend or catch any particular wave, or to be the flavor of the minute.  They were all about the music.

They captured the radio waves years back with an infectious nonsense tune that nobody could get out of their heads.  “MMMBop” was the soundtrack of that summer, and the brothers Hanson seemed to be on their way.  They were young, good looking and talented, but most of all, while other so-called ‘boy bands’ were having every inch of their success manufactured, they were the real deal, playing their own instruments and penning their own tunes.

But even before the shine had a chance to wear off, there were those who were prematurely calling them a one-hit wonder (even though their debut album Middle of Nowhere spawned more hits) or a novelty soon to be forgotten.  I always thought it a shame that Hanson seemed to suffer some of the backlash against faux teen pop…anyone who gave their album a serious chance couldn’t help but recognize that there was something great simmering in this band.

A few years later came This Time Around, which I quickly and permanently came to believe was the best album of its year.  Though none of them were old enough to legally drink, they were mature enough to deliver a solidly written, produced and played album of terrific songs from beginning to end.

And I was faced with the ultimate fan’s heartache.  I told everyone who would give me a second of their time how fantastic I thought the record was.  But I couldn’t get anybody to give it a chance.  I spent that year collecting raised-eyebrow looks and questions like, “Aren’t they the ‘MMMBop’ kids?”

And so an album that I still circulate through my stereo on a regular basis didn’t live up to chart expectations, and not long after, Hanson became a band without a record label.  Even those of us who believed wondered if there would be a third act, or if the curtain had fallen cruelly and prematurely.

But Isaac, Taylor and Zachary responded to the letdown the same way they responded to success:  they focused on the only thing that mattered to them…the music.  Lacking a record label didn’t stop them…they created their own label and wrote, produced and released a new album of material independently.  It’s a brave risk, and one I dearly hope pays off for them.  It deserves to…Underneath is close to a masterpiece.

Though the oldest two are barely in their 20s and the youngest still a teen, Hanson has continued to demonstrate a maturation in their songwriting that belies their years.  Always capable of crafting fun, effervescent pop with a little rock and soul mixed in, Underneath doesn’t disappoint, but it also manages to surprise with its depth of feeling and resonance.  These are three young men pouring their hearts and souls into their music…listening to the CD is joyful and infectious, but also moving and inspiring.

No song represents how far they’ve come better than the title track.  Written by the brothers with Matthew Sweet, “Underneath” is strikingly beautiful, with perfect three part harmonies not heard since the Beatles crooned “That Boy”.  It’s a song that will stay with you long after the final chord.  People who aren’t normally followers of this group are in for a surprising wake-up with this tune, and a new identity as freshly christened Hanson fans.

But Hanson also rocks with the best of them.  “Lost Without Each Other” is a song that won’t let you sit still, and a great example of how the brothers really make music and lyrics work together for great hooks.  Other examples include the leadoff single “Penny & Me” and the album opener, “Strong Enough to Break”.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that Taylor Hanson is worth more as a singer than all of N SYNC and all of the Backstreet Boys put together.  He’s not some cute, chirpy pop idol meant to sell posters first and records second.  He’s a first rate singer with total command of his vocal instrument, injecting each song with emotional gusto.  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how well his brothers do…Isaac was born to sing rock and roll; just listen to him on the soaring “Deeper”.  And Zak’s voice has matured to stand confidently beside his older siblings:  give him a listen on “Misery”.

But the real magic is when the three of them sing together:  nobody in the business today does it any better.  Listen to how they build songs like “Get Up and Go”, the simple but powerful “When You’re Gone”, or the haunting finale “Believe”…there are vocalists who have been together forever who don’t lay down such solid lines.  They’ve also grown into solid musicians as well…if the CD isn’t proof enough, check out the limited edition DVD to see them perform three tracks live and unplugged…a true unplugged concert; no backing musicians or tapes or sequences; just three guys singing and playing for themselves.

Underneath is everything a pop record should be, and nothing it shouldn’t.  Hanson has spent years quietly proving to anyone who would listen that they are in fact the genuine article.  I’ve been laughed at a few times for being such a die hard fan of the group, but that’s okay.  They won my loyalty six years ago, and they’ve never betrayed it…and if they can make a fan out of a grumpy old guy like me, I can only hope the rest of the world will stop, give a listen, and finally believe.