Angela and I

Angela and I

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,

Friday, August 11, 2017

25 Years, 6 Albums - ANTHEM

In about a month, Hanson will be releasing their first Greatest Hits album, and I’m feeling a lot of things.  So...I thought it was time for a little series on the blog about their music.  Because we all know I have way too much to say about...well, everything, but especially music.  And more specifically, Hanson’s music.  So join me as I go backwards through their six major studio albums: Anthem, Shout it Out, The Walk, Underneath, This Time Around, and Middle of Nowhere.  

The other night, my friend and I watched “Remade in America”, the documentary about the making of Hanson’s sixth studio album, ANTHEM.  Anthem isn’t usually the album I choose to listen to when I’m like “wow I’m in a Hanson mood”.  My love for Underneath and Shout It Out kind of overshadows everything else, but the documentary made me SUPER emotional.  There are a few reasons for that.  Let me explain:

  • While they were working on this album, the boys almost called it quits as a band.  So like, that information alone is...a lot for me to handle.

  • 2013 was a bad year for KT Berger.  I was at my lowest of all lows.  I was planning my suicide.  I went to the doctor because my body was literally breaking down and a few days and an intervention later I decided to check myself into treatment for my anorexia.   

  • Because of my illness, I definitely wasn’t on my fandom A-Game.  I had fallen away from the Hanson fandom for a few years (not completely, but I just wasn’t really into anything at that point, nothing got me excited anymore). Anthem came out in the summer of 2013, and I didn’t even bother to listen to it until October. I heard Anthem and I had the same moment that I had with Underneath in 2004.  I felt understood and heard and shaken to my core.  Already Home had me sobbing on the floor of my bedroom.  It was a lot.  But I needed it.

But enough about me!  This is about the let’s get to it!  

You better run and hide
Cause we're about to bring the fire

Hanson’s musical catalogue is full of “eff you, we’re here, get used to it!!” songs, starting with This Time Around, the titular song from their second studio album, and continuing from there.  When they were teenagers, coming off of their success as the angelic boys who sang Mmm-Bop, the rebellious lyrics seemed to say “we’re a little older and a little wiser, our voices have changed, and we’re not scared of our future.”  The meaning might have changed slightly over the years, but the core sentiment is still similar.  Against all odds, we’re still here.  And you can’t stop us.  That’s a powerful message for anyone, but especially when it’s coming from your peers.  Hanson has an incredibly dedicated fanbase, and I think a huge part of that dedication is the fact that we (the fans) are ultimately their peers.  Every time they sing a song about being able to do something they were told they couldn’t do, we feel it in our bones (“Hey!  Us, too!”).  In a way, we grew up with them. We came of age with them.  Anthem is brimming with these kind of lyrics.  From Fired Up to You Can’t Stop Us, from Already Home to Tonight.  Hanson wants us to know that even when the odds are stacked against you, you can’t wait ‘til tomorrow, ‘cause it just might be tonight.

Sing it if you know it
Scream it if you feel it

One of the reasons I love Anthem is because the mixing and production came a long way since Hanson’s beginning as an indie band in the early 2000’s.  Even I, Underneath’s biggest fan, can admit that production of that album is SUH-LOPPY, but they have learned a lot over the years.  There are a few weak spots in Anthem production-wise, but I know that there was a bit of a rush to get the album done.  Sonically, the album is pretty cohesive, and arguably one of their all-around best (even though it isn’t my favorite. There’s a difference).  Their previous record was more on the soul and blues side of the spectrum, and this one is more traditional, aggressive, in your face rock.  True, it does have it’s soulful moments (I mean, there is even a song called I’ve Got Soul).  It’s like this weird, hybrid, funky rocky...thing.  Anthem gives us the cowbell and horns of Shout it Out, while offering us a completely different feeling with arena-rock moments and sweeping, stacked harmonies.  If anything, the vocals are almost too perfect and polished (Hanson problems, am I right?) in some of those choral break-down moments, and it doesn’t exactly fit the grittier rock vibe they were going for.  But, that’s what happens when there are three brothers whose voices blend seamlessly. *shrugs*

You can come home to this town…

I think that, for the most part, all three brothers can write a damn good lyric.  I will literally stand by the fact that I think Zac is actually a lyrical genius until the day I die (a lot of people get on him for his ballads but those LYRICS YOU GUYS.  Like...I just....I dream about writing lyrics like that).  There are a few incredibly cheesey lyrical moments in Anthem, but underneath every sappy turn of phrase, there is a blonde boy from Oklahoma who means what he’s singing with every fiber of his being.  If nothing else, Hanson is about as sincere as you can get (which is probably another reason why we all follow them blindly).  Lost Without You was supposed to be the single, after all. Honestly, I just think that Hanson is better at writing story songs than anything else, so their lyrical prowess doesn’t exactly shine in big anthemic songs.  

What does shine, however, are their vocals.  All three of them have incredible rock tones, and while I could wax poetic about Taylor Hanson’s voice for literal hours, I have to say that Zac and Ike blow me away on this record.  Zac’s voice is just like...ridiculous.  It’s actually insane.  He belts B flats and then sings in flawless falsetto like he’s never used his chest voice a day in his life.  He places his rock screams perfectly so that they are healthy and supported and you can’ can’t teach that!!! You can try!! I think that Zac got famous young enough that he’s never had that glimmer of self doubt that most singers always have in the back of their minds.  He just goes for it, and it’s amazing.  Isaac, who only leads in one song on the record, really doesn’t get enough vocal credit.  His verse in You Can’t Stop Us is one of my favorite moments on the whole album.  That growl!  That placement!  I’ll get more to him in the earlier albums, but boy can SING.  

Anthem isn’t my favorite Hanson album, and it does have it’s moments of “Lol y’all are corny” but at the end of the day, I’m so grateful it exists.  Sometimes, seemingly small things can keep us a song telling me to scream and be free, or some of my favorite voices saying that I shouldn’t care what has come before, tomorrow’s an open door. I’m grateful that they put up a fight and stayed together as a band.  I’m grateful that they gave us this music, and I’m grateful that we get to share it with them.  Anthem is full of fighting and war-like metaphors and imagery, the words dripping the challenges and battle cries. It’s very “me vs. you” (with all of us listening being the ME, and all of our opponents/demons/etc. being the YOU).  It tells us to fight for what we want like there is no tomorrow...but this isn’t the end of the story. It could have been, but amazingly, inexplicably, it’s not.  Not for them, not for me, and not for you.  This is just the beginning.

Peace, Love, and Tragic Symphonies,