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HANSON: UNDERNEATH ACOUSTIC LIVE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Dave Diomedi
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Rhino
Features:  Documentary Trailer, Interview
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  July 27, 2004

“Don’t you ever ask them why,

If they told you, you would cry,

So just look at them and sigh…

…and know they love you.”

Film ***1/2

Hanson’s terrific new album Underneath was three years in the making, but the time wasn’t all spent writing and recording.  A lot of it was dealing with struggles with their label and the people there who seemed to have no faith in them, and ultimately facing the challenge of putting their money where their mouths were and releasing the album independently.

But before they did, they tested the waters a little bit with an inexpensive live acoustic CD showcasing some of the new material (available only on their website), and a string of acoustic shows where it was just the three brothers, their instruments, and their songs…no tapes, no sequences, and no guest musicians to help out.  It took a lot of guts for a band without a label and their entire careers on the line to present a wealth of new material to the world in such a manner.  But Hanson has never seemed to lack confidence…or the talent to back it up.

When we first heard of the brothers Hanson from Oklahoma, Isaac, Taylor and Zachary were 16, 13 and 11 respectively.  Now at 23, 20 and 18, they’re seasoned veterans of the music business who have spent their entire careers writing their own songs, playing their own instruments and even manning production for themselves.  Those who got it recognized early on that these young men were the real deal…unfortunately, others were too quick to pigeonhole them in the wave of faux teen pop that brought us The Backstreet Boys, N SYNC, Britney Spears and others.  After capturing the attention of the world with their infectious first single “MMM Bop”, they’ve spent the years following trying to prove to anyone who would give them a chance that they stood head and shoulders above their fabricated contemporaries.

If Hanson: Underneath Acoustic Live doesn’t prove that once and for all, I don’t know what will.  Taped live at the House of Blues in Chicago in 2003, it’s a live show stripped of every possible pretension.  While today’s teeny bopper acts are known for lip synching to pre-recorded music and costume changes, these brothers offer a simple show of nothing but real music.  There are no tapes or backup singers, computers or other musicians for them to lean on…they were perfectly willing to sink or swim on their own.  And not only do they swim, they come very close to walking on water.

If you strip most modern pop or rock songs from their studio productions, you’ll end up seeing how weak they really are.  But Hanson’s songs are strong enough to stand with piano, acoustic guitars, harmonicas and drums.  And of course, the siblings’ unmistakable harmonies.

From the opening “Strong Enough to Break”, you know you’re in for a real night of great music.  The concert features songs from their new album Underneath as well as their earlier efforts This Time Around and Middle of Nowhere.  As an added treat, there are some new songs that didn’t quite make the recent record, but are still here for your listening enjoyment, such as “Rock n’ Roll Razorblade”.

Equally impressive as their original material is the band’s ability to lovingly present covers of classic rock songs to their audience, further cementing their reputation as the ultimate band for younger and older audiences alike.  Their take on Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Teach Your Children” is transcendently beautiful.  Later they play Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” with soul and gusto.  Near the end, they do a rip-roaring version of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” with plenty of audience participation.

Each brother gets a solo spot, too.  First, Zac moves from drums to piano to introduce a new song called “The Walk” that I hope will be on the next record.  Near the middle of the show, Isaac plays “Hand in Hand”, and offer a hilarious introduction explaining how the song came about.  Finally, Taylor tears through “Crazy Beautiful” while accompanying himself with rippling piano.

But it’s when the brothers come together that the real magic begins.  They’re not afraid to experiment with the arrangements for acoustic instruments, and as such, familiar songs get different but equally good treatments.  New songs like the haunting “Underneath” and “When You’re Gone” sound perfect next to old favorites like “You Never Know” and “Where’s the Love”.  Whether it’s a lovely ballad like “With You in Your Dreams” or raucous rock and roll like “Deeper” or “If Only”, Hanson delivers with solid playing and terrific vocal lines…and the fans love it.

There may still be doubters out there, but Hanson’s true fan base continues to be loyal because the group has always put the music first.  Their dedication to writing, performing and producing good songs has always made them a better band than the others, who unfortunately tend to sell more records than they because of well-oiled publicity machines behind them.  But that’s okay, because while most of those acts are already collapsing into parodies of themselves, Hanson is still doing what they’ve always done, and doing it better than ever.

Video ***

As with most productions shot on videotape, things aren’t perfect, but this is still a pretty good anamorphic offering overall.  Colors are bright, and I noticed very little grain, just a touch of bleeding here and there.  Nothing distracting…compared to a lot of concerts by ‘bigger’ artists, this one holds up quite well.

Audio ***

You can choose either 5.1 or PCM stereo; both sound quite good.  The full surround mix offers more dynamic range and a fuller concert going experience thanks to the sound of the crowd in the rear speakers and the extra bottom end from the subwoofer.  Everything is clean and clear, from the notes of the acoustic guitars to the razor sharp harmonies from the brothers.

Features **

The most interesting feature is a trailer for an upcoming documentary called Strong Enough to Break.  It appears to chronicle the three year struggle the brothers had in trying to make the new record while battling with a record company that didn’t believe in them.  There is also an interview with the band about this show, with at least one amusing anecdote about what kind of things can go wrong just when you’re getting ready to take the stage!

Summary:

On a final note, I read recently that Underneath hit number one on Billboard’s independent album chart, and as high as number 25 on their overall one, making it one of the most successful independent releases of all time.  Hanson’s roll of the dice seems to be paying off well, and they deserve it.  If you’re one of those who doesn’t believe there can be life after “MMM Bop”, you seriously need to pick up Hanson: Underneath Acoustic Live and be prepared to become fans of the group all over again…this time for the right reasons.

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