Angela and I

Angela and I

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

25 Years, 6 Albums - THIS TIME AROUND

In celebration of their 25th anniversary as a band, and the release of their forthcoming Greatest Hits compilation (which is only like...a week away aaagh), I’m working backwards through Hanson’s discography and discussing their music and what it means to us.  We’ve already covered ANTHEM, SHOUT IT OUT, THE WALK, and now it’s time to travel all the way back to 2000 (can you believe that was 17 years ago??  That feels fake to me) for the release of their sophomore album.  THIS TIME AROUND.

I have much less of a personal connection to Hanson’s first two albums, simply because I didn’t come into my own as a fan until the release of Underneath in 2004.  That’s not to say I don’t absolutely love this record.  In fact, I think this album is the best example of Hanson really firing on all cylinders.  I actually remember the premiere of the This Time Around music video CLEARLY.  I remember seeing it on MTV and being like...oh my god they’re older (revolutionary, I know.  Time passes!  Who woulda thunk).  I also remember watching the If Only video, recording it on a VHS tape, and rewinding a certain scene over and over again because it was the first time I realized that boys were cute and I liked them.  It’s true.  Thanks for ruining my life, Taylor!!  I remember going to Disc Jockey in November of 2000 with my friend Natalie and buying both Black and Blue and This Time Around. Since I was still a die hard Backstreet Girl, Hanson was slightly overshadowed at the time.  But I jumped around my room to Runaway Run like any other self respecting girl in the early two thousands.  

I won't sit around just thinkin' ‘bout
the troubles that tomorrow brings...

This Time Around was Hanson’s last album on Island Records, before the company’s merge with Def Jam Recordings.  As I discussed in the previous post, the creation of Island Def Jam Music Group began a period of turmoil within the band and their collaborators which ultimately led to them creating their own record label, 3CG Records.  For this album, however, they were still signed to a major label and that fact can easily be heard in the production of the album (Produced by Mark Hudson and Stephen Lironi!!!!). First of all, it’s mixed really well...probably better than any other Hanson album.  The production is dense.  There are countless tracks on each song - doubled vocals, scratch tracks, clap tracks, harmonica, heavy bass all in addition to the regular guitar/keys/drums that the brothers themselves play.  It’s sonically cohesive, but much different than Middle of Nowhere - grittier, more mature, more rock, more blues, less funk.  It’s totally different than any other record that was released during that time.  

Goodbye, childhood!!! 

This album is also the beginning of Hanson’s habit of writing “we’re here, we’re older, we’re still awesome, get used to it!!” songs.  
This Time Around was a reinvention of sorts, proving to the general public and media that they were more than the angelic, baby faced brothers who sang MmmBop.  They definitely proved their chops, both musically and compositionally.  Listen to songs like Can’t Stop and In The City and tell me that THESE are the dorks you picture singing those gritty, sexy lyrics.  Or listen to Hand in Hand, one of my very favorite (and extremely underrated) Isaac leads while knowing that THIS is who is serving you that perfectly placed rock tone!!  Like damn, boys!!  

Speaking of vocal PLACEMENT, let’s take a moment to appreciate the voice of one Jordan Taylor Hanson.  His voice is unique, there is no denying it.  He became globally famous RIGHT as his voice was changing, which is literally a disaster waiting to happen.  Like...okay I’m a voice teacher and I mainly teach 10-14 year olds and every boy I have in my studio is right on the verge of a voice change and it makes me have anxiety dreams because I don’t want to mess anything up.  It’s no joke.  I have to give it to whoever was coaching Taylor during the MON era (I refuse to believe that he didn’t have a vocal coach, the way he retained his tone is not NATURAL) because somehow he came out of a rigorous touring schedule with incredibly demanding vocal gymnastics with a voice that was EVEN BETTER on This Time Around.  His vocal agility on this record is INSANE.  The best example of his prowess is on Dying to be Alive.  In a different context (like...if he had decided to pursue musical theatre instead of pop/rock) he could have been just as successful as a vocalist.  The riffs that are buried in the production of that song are AMAZING.  He’s also up against a powerhouse choir and he holds his own. He's a force to be reckoned with vocally. On tracks such as In The City he flies through his entire register like it ain't no thang, and let me just explain to you that that isn't NORMAL for a seventeen year old. It's truly incredible. Taylor muscles through notes sometimes when he’s singing lead which causes some throat tension (which results in his bluesy growl and at this point, that’s kind of what he’s known for so whatever)  but his placement on those top notes are legendary; honestly fight me.  Also, when he’s NOT singing lead, his falsetto is so pure and straight, telling me that he knows when to turn on his solo voice.  What a good choir kid!!!

I'm looking for a song to sing
Looking for a friend to borrow
I'm looking for my radio
So I might find a heart to follow

I’m glad that in the years since its release, I’ve come to appreciate this album more and more.  It really is a great record, with some awesome songs.  The strings on Runaway Run make my heart explode.  Save Me, Dying to Be Alive, and Song to Sing are Taylor Hanson’s best vocal work.  Seeing Hand in Hand  live is like...a religious experience.  Their harmonies are fuller, the musicianship is better, and the energy is higher.  It really was the perfect sophomore album, and a very obvious attempt to further their craft and be respected as musicians, which was something that the critics noticed for the most part.  It definitely wasn’t playing into the sound at the time, and set the band apart from the rest of their contemporaries (for better or for worse).  It let everyone who took the time to really digest the music know that these brothers are songwriters, and they are here to stay.  Even now, seventeen years later, they’re always looking for a new song to sing.  

Peace, Love, and Blue yonder dreams,

Monday, August 21, 2017

25 Years, 6 Albums - UNDERNEATH

I don’t feel myself today...

Thanks for joining me for the next installment of this series!  In celebration of their 25th anniversary as a band, Hanson is releasing their very first Greatest Hits Compilation, while I am working backwards through their six major studio albums and exploring why we love those three brothers and the music they make so much.  We’ve already covered ANTHEM, SHOUT IT OUT, and THE WALK, so now it’s time to travel back three more years.  In April of 2004, Hanson released their third major studio album, and their first as an independent band.  UNDERNEATH.  

It’s no secret that Underneath is my favorite album.  The record turned 13 this year, which is a sobering fact considering I was 13 years old when I first heard it.  If someone asked me the one album that affected me the most in my whole life, I would say Underneath without hesitation (it's my favorite era too...yes questionable hair decisions and all).  I know, I know...I said that these posts weren’t going to turn into a personal sap fest, but I can’t separate this particular record from what was happening in my life at the time goes...Underneath was released almost exactly one year after my father passed away.  My dad’s death has shaped my entire life.  Everything I do, every choice I make, every word I write, every weird compulsion I have has been colored by the fact that I woke up one morning in 2003 to find my father dead on the couch.  After that day, my brain shut off for a little while.  For nearly a year, I walked through life with wool wrapped around every sense.  I can’t remember most of my eighth grade year.  I was too young to be feeling this crushing sadness, so instead of dealing with it, I just kind of...shut down.  And then...I heard a song called Penny and Me.

Close our eyes, pretend to fly
It’s always Penny and me tonight…

I knew about Hanson before, and I had both of their previous CDs, and I enjoyed seeing them on TRL (they were young and making music!  I was young!  I frankly wanted to be them).  BUT, as someone who had spent nearly four years being mercilessly teased for being such a huge Backstreet Boys fan, I tried to keep my love for anything under lock and key (being young is weird), and it wasn’t until I heard their new single that I realized it was done...this was it...this was the one.  I’ve never been able to write about this outside of the context of fiction so, I’ll let a little excerpt from that novel I wrote do some of the talking:

“I just...I’ve never really talked about it like this to anyone.  Anyone outside the fando-- the people I know friends who also love them.  It’s just...kind of overwhelming, I guess.  Okay.  So.  A few months after...everything happened...I heard their song on the radio.  So.  My dad died, of course, we all know that.  Do you want to know something crazy?  I didn’t even cry at the funeral.  I cried the day it happened, of course, I mean shit I  sounded like a dying cat screaming all the way down the street.  I threw things, I smashed a glass against my wall and then had to clean it up.  But by the time we were in that church, I didn’t cry.  I barely even remember it.  And I definitely don’t remember the rest of the summer or  even school the next semester.  I was in a fucking daze.  I couldn’t...I felt like my peripheral vision was gone or something.  Nothing made sense.  English sounded like jibberish and….yeah. So I heard this song on the radio one day after school and it was like I woke up.  I felt like I could see again.”

I’m not trying to pretend like at 13 years old I understood every single lyric of this album, or even every lyric in that particular song.  I was still incredibly young and confused and intensely sad.  But I do know that I understood something about it, and it seemed to understand something about me.  A few years later, Taylor would have a daughter and actually name her Penny, making the song mean even more to me.  Now it wasn’t only just a song about having adventures with someone you love (who you may or may not imagine as your father in the driver’s seat), but now it was colored even more with father/daugther imagery.  It was now inevitably about his daughter, every time he sang it.  My dad and I never just ran errands or took trips...we went on adventures.  We would drive forever with the windows down and the radio up, him at the steering wheel, me switching gears for him.  He never shut me up when I started aimlessly babbling about the things I loved.  He would look over at me with a sparkle in his eye that made me believe that I could fly...not just pretend to.  Which is why, no matter what happens, Penny will always be my song.

Waking up this morning thinking this can’t be real
But they say there is nothing love can’t heal...

Underneath is an emotional album.  The boys were going through a lot with their label and their personal lives, and you can hear that in every lyric and every note in these songs.  Even the lighter songs are full of friction and strain.  It’s the first time you listen to their lyrics and you can’t help but notice that they are wise beyond their years.  When You’re Gone and Underneath take my breath away with their images of grief and struggle.  It was the only thing I had ever heard, up until that point, that sounded like I felt.  I remember listening to Broken Angel for the first time (and crying, of course) and thinking “Wait...this is the kid that wrote Wish I was There?!”  Something had changed.  The intense pressure they were under from Island Def Jam, paired with the freedom they gained when they were strong enough to break and start their own label, created this incredible, passionate, visceral collection of songs that you can tell they still love to play.

The crazy thing about Underneath is that it includes a very small fraction of the songs they wrote during that time.  They were constantly churning out music, sending it to IDJ and hoping something would stick.  They were being led around by these music industry professionals, forcing them to go through every single obstacle imaginable until finally they had enough.  And so, 3CG Records was born.  While it is their lowest selling album, I know they still consider it a huge win for them as a band, and for us as a fanbase.  We stuck with them and they stuck with us.  

I’m a musician, so I’m the first to admit that the production of Underneath is...pretty sloppy.  Which, at 13 I didn’t even know what that meant, so I didn’t care.  But now, I’m knowledgeable enough to know that it’s not a terribly polished record.  It’s something I can forgive, due to the fact that it forever and always, plus it took them nearly four years to make so of course there are going to be some inconsistencies.  They worked with so many different people, and wrote so many’s really no wonder that the album is a bit of a patchwork quilt.  But, almost all my favorite Hanson songs live on this record so, it’s mismatched quality is something I will never seem to mind.

This album has been with me through...well..exactly half of my life at this point, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.  My relationship with Hanson is complicated (I have dead dad issues, so the fact that they are all fathers to beautiful children makes things pretty confusing). I know that I kept my love for them so close to my chest for so long because I was terrified of losing anything that was good in my life.   I know that I rely on these three men because when I was twelve, all the men in my life died within the span of a month.  And I know that might not be too terribly healthy, but I also know that anything that makes me as happy as I am when I hear the opening chords of Penny and Me can’t be anything but healthy.  This album taught me that even when you feel the walls close in, you can still be strong enough to break.  It taught me that sometimes nothing is gone, but something is missing, and it’s okay to grieve.  It taught me that crazy can be the same thing as beautiful.  It taught me that happiness is just a step away. It taught me to listen.  It taught me to believe.  

Peace, Love, and walks on the wild side,


Friday, August 18, 2017

25 Years, 6 Albums - THE WALK

ALRIGHT, how is everyone doing? Ready for the next album?  I’m doing great, and I’m really enjoying writing these posts.  In celebration of their 25th year as a band, Hanson is releasing their first Greatest Hits compilation, while I am working backwards through their musical catalog and talking about each album in detail.  We’ve already been over ANTHEM and SHOUT IT OUT, so now let’s go back three more years to 2007, and the release of their fourth studio album - THE WALK.

I find hope in what eyes don’t see
I find hope in your hate for me
Have no fear when the waters rise, we can conquer this great divide.

I’m a little nervous writing this post because The Walk is actually my least favorite Hanson album. *Gasp*.  But, your least favorite pie is still pie, ya know?  So it still has a lot that I want to talk about, and a lot that I love discussing.  The Walk came out in 2007, right as I was starting my senior year of high school, aka the perfect time for KT Berger to listen to it.  I think a lot of us go through a kind of social justice awakening in our late teens or early twenties, and mine definitely happened during my senior year.  I was coming off of a crazy and intense summer,  both my school and my church were involved in the Invisible Children initiative, I was very active in my youth group, I was about to go sing at NCYC, and I wanted to make a difference.  And it seemed as though Hanson did as well.  So they went to Africa, started their Talk The Walk campaign, and released this super passionate and intense album.  17 year old KT loooooooved it.  26 year old KT still loves it, because it sounds like senior year and feeling like I could change the world.  I still think I can change the world, a different way.  Just like I love this album in a different way. Okay, anyway...THE ALBUM…

If there is one thing The Walk has going for it, it is the passion in the music.  You can tell that the guys were on FIRE for their cause at the time.  As soon as you start the album and you hear that first guitar riff in Great Divide, your heart starts racing and you know what you’re in for.  The Walk isn’t romantic.  It’s not just pretty boys singing love songs (not that Hanson has ever just been pretty boys singing love songs, but I digress).  These are songs about pain, and loss, and war, and battles in your own mind.  Because of this wild passion, the album is...kind of all over the place.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a fact.  And, as a songwriter, I can attest to the fact that when you feel something really hard, it’s difficult to reign it in musically.  You want to go all out, every line, every verse, every time.  That’s when it’s good to have someone to help you stay on track (a lesson I have learned time and time again).

In Hanson-land, we get these awesome things called Member’s Only EPs (seriously we are so spoiled as a fandom it’s ridiculous).  So we get this collection of four or five songs every year and typically, each track is wildly different.  They cover a vast spectrum of musical styles.  Which is why, at the end of the day, The Walk has always, and will always, feel like an extended Member’s EP to me.  This album is for the fans, plain and simple.  And again, not a bad thing, but it is something worth addressing.

I'm blind with eyes wide open
My body's tired and broken
I want a taste of something, that doesn't leave me dry

An important thing to note, for me anyway, is that The Walk was SUPER formative for myself as a songwriter and composer.  The syncopated rhythm in Running Man is the reason I will never be able to write anything on the beat (just ask Blake, my writing partner!  He loves it!).  The internal rhyme scheme in the chorus of Go is the reason I am utterly obsessed with that lyrical device. I’ve accidentally written a few too many songs that sound shockingly like I Am.  I still dream of writing lyrics like the ones in Fire on the Mountain and The Walk.

You might notice that all of the examples I just gave have one thing in common.  They are all Zac leads!  So let’s talk about that guy. Zac Hanson.  The boy that became famous at age 11 and then somehow, inexplicably, became an extremely prolific songwriter and lyricist.  He’s a HUGE influence for me, and I think that started with The Walk because, this was the kind of the first album that the other brothers really gave him the reins.  There’s SO much Zac on this record.  The kid (lol he’s 31 but whatever) can write. A. LYRIC.  A thing that makes me not like the album as much as I probably could is the fact that Zac ballads have the tendency to be over-produced.  All of his songs are, at their core, so frickin’ good but sometimes, they’re just sonically messy after all is said and done in that control room.  A perfect example of that is Go, a song that, compositionally, finds it’s brilliance in it’s simplicity.  The production of it is NOT SIMPLE, so therefore it loses some of it’s magic. But live, it’s amazing!! It’s how the song should always sound because the lyrics and simple melody shine through (I feel that way about a lot of Zac is better.  The Walk, Broken Angel, Use Me Up. Give me a live performance any day).  So, in conclusion, I prefer listening to Taylor leads, but I write, for better or for worse, much more like Zac.

Don’t lose yourself in your fear

While The Walk is a little all over the place sonically, at it’s core there’s heart and almost uncontrollable emotion.  Taylor uses the theme of weight a lot in his songwriting (“Carry it like a heavyweight champ”, “someone to hold the weight part of the time”, “your heavyweight knees buckle under a ton”) and that very obviously signals to me that he feels things really hard.  Emotions and feelings have weight, so much weight, in fact, that he has to write songs about them in order to relieve that weight.  This album was different than all the previous ones, for a few reasons.  This was the first one they made completely on their own as an independent band from the beginning, this was the first one they made after they had all been married off, this was the first one where they truly...TRULY broke away from their teenage image.  These were men making this record.  Now, I don’t want to delve too deep into their personal lives, but we all know that Georgia is written about Natalie, Taylor’s wife.  Okay, okay, it’s never been actually confirmed, but come on. The reason I’m bringing up this song is because it’s a testament to how this album is different.  This is the only “love song” on the record but it’s not mushy gushy, wide eyed, teenage love.  It’s about real love, hard love, every day you have to work for it love.   It’s personal and specific.  It’s complicated.  It’s real.

So, is The Walk their best album?  Definitely not.  They were still relatively new as an indie band, and still learning what works and what doesn’t.  Even though they were all married by it’s release, they were all still pretty young.  Musicians are constantly learning, which I think is a really awesome thing about the profession.  I am glad this record exists, though.  It reminds us that we can use our overwhelming passion for good, we can use it to fuel change and start something amazing in the world.  And hey, isn’t that a message we desperately need right now? I believe that now, more than ever, we need some inspiring words to remind us that we can conquer this great divide.

Peace, Love, and Tightropes,

Monday, August 14, 2017

25 Years, 6 Albums - SHOUT IT OUT

WARNING: This blog post it going to have a lot of...ahem...BIG statements.

In celebration of their 25th anniversary as a band, and the forthcoming release of the Greatest Hits album, I’m working backwards through the Hanson musical catalog and talking about why we love these three brothers and the music they create. In the summer of 2010, Hanson released their fifth major studio record SHOUT IT OUT, the record which (big statement here) I believe is their overall BEST album.  There, I said it.  It’s the best one they’ve ever done.  This is controversial only because I know there are a whole slew of Hanson fans who, for whatever reason, do NOT like this album.  It’s the bottom of a lot of people’s lists.  But...BUT!!!  There are a few of us who love it so much that we have literally deemed ourselves the SIO Army so, even if it’s not your absolute fave, keep reading!  It’s still fun to pick it apart at the musical seams.  

If you don’t mind me saying, there’s no sense in waiting so
Shout it out, shout it out

One of the criticisms fans have about this album is that it doesn’t “sound like Hanson.”  Okay well, I disagree.  I believe that Shout it Out is actually the closest the band has ever gotten to sounding like Middle of Nowhere...just like...the grown up version of that!  It’s poppy and funky and groovy. There are soul and R&B vibes throughout, and the whole thing is much more upbeat than it’s predecessor, The Walk.  It’s very clearly playing on their influences, and doing it well.  I seriously...I love this album so much.  It never gets old for me.  The arrangements are so tight and well executed.  I remember listening to it for the first time and screaming because the horn arrangements (Thank you, Jerry Hey) are so good, and compliment the boys’ voices so well.  I mean think about it.  Think about Hanson’s signature vocal harmonies.  Three, perfectly blended voices, locking into their parts and anticipating each other’s every vocal move.  The only way to recreate that type of sound is with HORNS.  Zac’s full throated belt is basically a trumpet, Taylor’s windy tenor is pretty much a trombone, and Isaac’s soulful croon IS a saxophone.  So we have the flawless three part vocals, and an awesome horn counterpoint...mind explodes, happiness abounds.  

I was going to wait until later to talk about the horns but...we’re here now.  After watching the documentary about the making of this album, I learned that the horns were kind of the last thing that they did.  I, for one, think that’s awesome.  That means that they did all this work on these songs, almost released the album, and then decided that something was missing.  They could do better.  That’s a sign of some awesome musicians; always striving for more.  Without the horns, the album would have been fine.  Good, even.  But with that finishing touch, the music was brought to life.  They knew they could reach farther and take the album from good to great. What’s more, they got one of the industry’s BEST to arrange these horn parts.  Jerry freakin’ Hey!!  The guy that has a bunch of Grammys and worked with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson!  No big deal, very casual!  

I'll be happy just sitting on the passenger side
Cause I live for you and me and the lonely drive…

So remember how in the Anthem post I was like “Zac and Ike’s vocals are amazing!”  Well, on this record, it’s all Taylor.  This is, exactly the style of music that Taylor Hanson was born to sing.  I mean, have you heard Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’?  Okay, another big statement coming, and this is from the girl who is thinking about getting lyrics from Penny and Me  literally tattooed on her body...Thinkng ‘Bout Somethin’ is Hanson’s best single to date.  I SAID IT.  It does everything a single is supposed to do, and I think in a very different context Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’, not MmmBop, could have been the song that skyrocketed them to success.  It was well loved by critics and industry professionals alike.  Here’s the thing.  Industry people love Hanson.  I cannot tell you the number of professional musicians I know who are closet Hanson fans...and it’s because they’re really great musicians!!  

Don't make your mind up just yet
There's still so much for you to see...

Shout it Out is about as sonically cohesive as I think we’ll ever get with Hanson.  There is a musical through line, and you can tell that these songs belong together.  Cohesion isn’t a thing that’s very high on my priority list (I’m a musical theatre writer and that like...barely exists for us), but for some people, it’s very important so I think it’s worth nothing.  From the moment you hear the bright piano on Waiting for This, you know what you’re in for.  The musical aesthetic brings us all the way to the last track and, like every Hanson album, we end with a ballad, showcasing what they do best - three voices in perfect harmony.  The cohesiveness doesn’t end with the music.  The era itself was executed incredibly well.  The marketing, the branding, the videos, the artwork...everything went together, and everything was bright and fun.  Primary colors!  Silly dance moves!  Songs that sound like summer!  

On a personal note, last summer was another moment when I wasn’t incredibly invested in Hanson and the fandom, and then it all changed.  Again.  I was getting ready to go to NYC to perform in the musical I wrote, and I was all alone in my house, and I thought to myself “wow...I want to listen to Shout it Out!” So I did. Then I got to the city and I couldn’t stop listening to it.  I remember so clearly emerging from the subway station and walking to the theatre to make my New York City debut while listening to Waiting for This.  That song will now remind me of a time when I did the best thing I’ve ever done, the thing I had been waiting for my whole life.  And that’s what’s so cool about music.  It can shape our experiences, no matter where we are or what we’re doing; no matter how old the song is, or what memories came before.  It will always be around to carry us there.

Peace, Love, and Voices in the chorus,