Seeing Hanson, the Oklahoma-bred trio of brothers all grown up and promoting Shout It Out at the House of Blues Saturday night made us hip to a couple of things. The good: the band is evidence that not all child performers have to spectacularly flame out, enter rehab or systematically destroy the careers that made them famous. The bad: apparently, you can make a robust career out of conveying mostly one-note sentiments.
The audience, 90 percent female in their mid-to-late 20s who fawned, shrieked, jumped and cheered with the hyperactivity of giddy tweens, was not deterred by any of this. Thirteen years on, their former teen idols are full-fledged men, though the maturation of Hanson, it seems, has had more to do with facial hair and having kids than it has exploring and growing as artists.
The band still pulls references from Jackson 5-era R&B, “golden oldies” and occasional strands of blues and soul, channeling it all into radio-friendly, guitar and keys-driven pop that they infuse with a bright, youthful vigor. Some of their newer songs, including “Waiting for This” have more complicated arrangements, becoming almost prog-rock-ish in their length and variation.
Isaac, Taylor and Zac are supremely confident musicians (performing live since your sandbox days no doubt boosts comfort in that area) but haven’t developed much of their own style. Instead, they turn in very good and entirely sincere imitations of their influences which at times come through a little too strongly; at least four tracks in their nearly two-hour set contained riffs that were instantly recognizable from popular songs (we heard virtually note-by-note copies of “The Weight” from The Band and “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones).
Taylor dropped into a completely un-ironic, preacher-style interlude of “at the end of our albums…we like to break it down a bit” that would have seemed laughable if he weren’t saying it with utter conviction. What keeps some of Hanson’s genre parroting from feeling tired (though it does get there) is that it comes across so heartfelt, like a group of wheat-blonde Michael McDonald’s doing what they feel is a tasteful interpretation of black artists singing soul and the blues.
The oldest, and arguably best-known, material from their debut comprised a good slice of the show, but stuck out in odd ways.“MmmBop,” “Like the Wings of an Eagle” “Thinking of You” and “A Minute Without You”, though solid, seemed out of place, having been originally written by and for someone of about 14. Not that their new material has particularly adult gravitas; “Crazy Beautiful,” “Me, Myself and I” and “Carry You There” retreads the same territory as their 13 year-old debut, with occasionally more refined lyrics and complex structure.
The new album’s single, “Been Thinkin’ ‘Bout Something” was the most fun of the evening with its snappy, blues-y guitar bits and the pretty vocal harmonies that great pop-y songs are made of (the video, a shot-by-shot remake of the memorable Ray Charles bit from “Blues Brothers,” is a worth a look for the Weird Al cameo alone).
Here’s where we’re unsure of how hard to we should press on Hanson’s relentlessly positive, occasionally schlocky message: having been in an industry for most of their lives that tends to chew up and spit out its darlings, the Hansons have never really snapped or bit back. They’ve maintained a dedicated fan base, remained commercially viable, kept artistic control over their work, and are by all accounts each happily married with children and close family connections. The band did have some hard luck after a label merger and subsequent dismissal, but they’ve moved ahead, formed their own indie imprint and even engage very generously with anti-AIDS and anti-poverty philanthropy efforts. If their lives are so happy, shouldn’t their music follow suit? Their ebullience may get a little boring, but perhaps it’s better that they aren’t affecting any faux-torment and moodiness. It’s unlikely that their lives are free of conflict, and the decision to keep it out of their music is certainly their discretion. Still, we’re curious about how compelling that music might be if they decided to mine the less cheerful parts of life.
This conundrum isn’t so different from the Beach Boys, who shared talent, family ties and a penchant for sunny pop music. The tack Hanson has chosen seems to be more Mike Love than Brian Wilson; Love favored singing about pretty girls, cars and surfing and was loathe to mess with a successful formula. But as talented, energetic and pleasing to watch as Hanson may be, unless they create some depth in their music, they will likely skate past their “Pet Sounds” and head straight for “Kokomo.”
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