Middle Of Nowhere

Hanson

Mercury Records, 1997

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/02/1998

A cynic couldn't help but hate this album.

Consider: three gorgeously-scrubbed white kids, ages 12 to 17, all blond, all brothers, with a sound that's frequently so Jackson Five you half expect to find "A-B-C, 1-2-3" on the track list. A long list of managers, legal consultants and executive producers, help from some seasoned pro songwriters (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Mark Hudson), big-time promotional backing from a major label, media saturation, frothing-at-the-mouth teenage fanclubs...

I mean, this album just about HAS TO suck, right?

Wrong. Not only does Middle Of Nowhere most sincerely NOT suck, it's a pretty impressive accomplishment. One of the big reasons is the seriously hip Phil-Spector-meets-Will-Smith production by Stephen Lironi (Moby Grape), and on two tracks, The Dust Brothers (Beck's acclaimed Odelay album). They add layers of depth and complexity to the music while simultaneously making sure the Hansons are allowed to be themselves, rather than a whitewashed corporate product.

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And -- surprise -- what the Hansons turn out to be is three very young, vulnerable, intensely energetic and precociously talented musicians. Fourteen-year-old Taylor Hanson's vocal delivery is full of the kind of hyper-kinetic enthusiasm that made Michael Jackson into a superstar before puberty. The joy coming from behind the mike on this album is palpable and -- unless you're hopelessly jaded -- fairly awesome to behold. This is music made by people utterly unashamed of enjoying what they're doing.

This is truest on the way-beyond-infectious pop gem "MMMbop," whose hip-hop edge (courtesy of the aforementioned Dust Brothers) cements the Hansons' musical connection to that predecessor quintet of singing brothers. Still, maybe the most impressive aspect of the song is the lyric, written solo by the three brothers. It's a simple yet surprisingly sophisticated take on mortality and learning what's really important in life ("hold on to the ones who really care / In the end they'll be the only ones there"). A lot of full-grown adult songwriters couldn't pull off the combination of knockout- power-pop music and subtly thoughtful lyrics; coming from the Hansons it sounds perfectly natural.

The Hansons rock out to similarly pleasing effect on "Thinking Of You" and "Where's The Love," both full of punchy grooves and soaring harmonies that are pure ear candy. The fact that Taylor and older brother Isaac alternate (and sometimes share) lead vocals help widen the band's musical range, with 17-year-old Isaac's more mature voice showing a strong resemblance to veteran rock-and-balladeer Bryan Adams on tunes like "A Minute Without You," and especially "I Will Come To You."

The boys also dip into some funk on "Speechless," pulling it off better than you might think, and offer predictably sweet but well-crafted ballads in "Weird" and "With You In Your Dreams," the latter dedicated to their deceased grandmother.

It's not exactly Springsteen, but for a trio of wholesome, suburban teenagers, it's a pretty auspicious debut, much more sophisticated musically and lyrically than any of the pre-fab, disposable teen idols that went before. If you can put aside your cynicism -- and c'mon, be honest, maybe a little envy, too -- for a few minutes, you ought to be pleasantly surprised by this album. And if, like me, at some point you suddenly catch yourself singing along with your ten-year-old at the top of your lungs, you've basically got two choices: cut yourself off and return to your former life as a cynical, repressed, fatalistic grown-up, or let it rip.

I know what your therapist would say.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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© 1998 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Mercury Records, and is used for informational purposes only.