Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Play or Skip? A very personal review of Hanson's new EP

The Cover of Play - credit to HNET

a.k.a. "The One Whose Title Is Perilously Close to Another Song’s"

This is a Zac song, and Zac songs always seem to attract rave reviews. I get it - he’s got the hair, the moves, he hits all the high notes. Only last year Hanson recorded a cover of the Darkness’ I Believe in a Thing Called Love for the Roots & Rock'n'Roll EP and although I’ve never been a fan of that song, I have to admit that Zac nailed the challenging vocals, gaining the approval of none other than Justin Hawkins himself.

DYBIL is half Darkness, half Queen. It doesn’t accurately represent Hanson as a songwriting band but it speaks miles of their fun, devil-may-care attitude: (Hey you guys, this year we want to channel our inner glam-rock gods! Sorry if it’s not your thing!). It’s also a pretty good fun to hear live, and watching Zac drum at break-neck speed and sing at the same time is a show within the show.

I thought this song would be a ‘skip’ for me but since it was pre-released it has grown on me. It will never be a favourite but to paraphrase a friend, I won’t have to get out of the shower to skip it.

Play or Skip? Mostly play.

a.k.a. “Not The Chic Song”

As some of you already know, Isaac is my favourite Hanson (yes, we all have a favourite and those claim not to, are either lying or confused. I suggest some serious soul-searching).
As every fan knows, Isaac leads are few and far between - one per album or EP, if you’re lucky. Because of their scarcity, and the demand that this causes, I am convinced that the band use Isaac leads as bargaining chips, a carrot to dangle in front of us to make us give them more money even more money. They like to watch us squirm. Why would they otherwise leave Grace Unknown out of the making of Inside the Box, causing widespread panic in the fanbase? And why didn't they play this one in Tulsa? I'm telling you: they like to keep us hanging.

I first heard Freak Out from the short preview clip that posted in the store. It didn't sound my kind of thing. Later on, the ‘Making of’ stream half-confirmed my fears, and yet, I still tried to keep an open mind. But now, with the finished product playing through the speakers, I feel like weeping into my For Your Love t-shirt.

My first problem with this song starts with the fact that it’s titled like a very famous song with a chorus that says ’Freak out!’. Admittedly, that’s where the similarities stop, but I can’t listen to Isaac say Freak Out without automatically adding “Le Freak, c'est Chic” in my head. What is it with Hanson writing song titles that sound a lot like other (more famous) songs? (Answers on a tweet to @asphodelia).

Anyway. The opening is promising enough, with a badass groove that could potentially turn into a decent rock song, but instead, the chorus leads into some kind of predictable hash of anything you’ve heard before with a heavy 80’s influence - a kind of Robert Palmer-lite, although friends have also heard echoes of Huey Lewis and Roxette respectively.

When it comes to the lyrics, I find it hard to be impressed by yet another song about letting loose at the weekend, especially when the people who wrote it are not exactly Springsteen-style blue-collar characters in need to blow off some steam after a hard week at the steel factory.

Take off that ball and chain
Turn off your weekday brain
Let me hear you sing
Let me hear you scream
Freak out

If there’s one positive thing I can say about this song, is that I’m almost certain that it will sound great live. The Old Man will strut his stuff (hopefully it won’t make my evening rough) and we’ll all freak out and everything will be just dandy. Therefore, if in just under three months’ time from now you spot me in a BTTI video freaking out to Freak Out, please remember the disclaimer you’ve just read.

Play or Skip? Skip.

a.k.a "You Can’t Stop Us Reprise"

Taylor is getting all the best leads lately - something that drove me to switching teams for a good 15 minutes in the last 24 hours (in the end, I had to give in: I will always side with the underdog, i.e. Isaac). But seriously, can you blame me? From the opening guitar riff, you know that this is going to be a crowd pleaser: vaguely rebellious lyrics, Taylor in fight mode, and an infectious ‘na-na-na’ to sing along to. Wait, doesn't this sound like another Hanson song? Yes it does.

Let us compare the lyrics of Man on Top with You Can't Stop Us Now:

You're looking down
from your penthouse castle
Flaunting your dimes
hoping I will unravel

Out on the corner on your soapbox looking down
Waving your flag like this is a battle ground

See what I mean?

It’s hard not to interpret every ‘Hanson battle cry song’, as a great big “F*** YOU” to the band’s detractors and rivals, not to mention the stock Hanson Bogeyman, Jeff Fenster. Thematically, YCSUN and MOT are very close:


ain't no heavy
but my eye's on the prize
Jump in the ring and you're in
for a surprise


Your fancy words try to cut me down to size
Hey mister, mister, you're in for a big surprise

If the lyrics are beginning to sound a little too déjà vu for me these days, I still can’t help liking this song. The “Hanson against the rest of the world” theme lends itself perfectly to this kind of fist-pumping, old-school, road-trip-with-Sam-and-Dean type of rock. I predict that there will be a lot of Taylor-led jumping to this one in the next tour, so, ladies, make sure your bras are up to the job - that’s all I’m saying on this one.

Play or Skip? Play.

a.k.a. "Three Songs for the Price of One"

I remember liking this song a lot when I heard it in Tulsa last May, but what I didn’t remember was the decidedly ‘sitcom song’ feel of the piano and verse. It’s as if there are three different songs going on here:

#1 - Sitcom Song
#2 - Uplifting song (chorus)
#3 - Rallying the Troops -(crowd participation).

Part 3 is my favourite: this is Zac doing his Aragorn Battle Speech at the Black Gate in The Return of the King, riding his white horse up and down to an army of fans; “A day may come when the courage of men fails...but it is not this day!”. Cue fans following Hanson into Mordor (which could be a metaphor of the black hole into which we willingly step when we hand over our time, social life and above all, money, in the pursuit of Hanson).

My opinion hasn’t changed too drastically since Tulsa - I like the song’s uplifting feel, the simple celebration of joy per se. The choir, however, works only in part, possibly due to the fact that 99% of the audience in Tulsa was female, and as a result we sound like a children's choir. It's all bit "Annie"-like: Hanson & Special Guests: The Tulsan Orphanage.

On a final note - am I the only who finds Zac’s Michael Jackson-style ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ really out of place? Seriously, if you make sex sounds before singing a lyric about making ‘a joyful noise’, you’re kind of undermining the meaning of the song: are we talking about a particular kind of ‘joyful noise’? Maybe it’s best if we leave it at that.

Play or Skip? Play

a.k.a. “Don’t Call Me Señorita”

This is the song that had left the strongest impression on me in Tulsa: Taylor’s performance was different to what I’ve seen so far in the handful of shows I’ve been to. I loved his unusual delivery of certain lines, half-spoken, half-sung, heavy with melodrama - it was Hanson cabaret, and I was there to witness it.

Feeling Alive is a strange beast: part theatre, part epic, part church choir. As one of the members of the aforementioned Tulsan Orphanage, it’s hard to stay detached when listening to this song and not think of the experience of actually being there. All round, the recording of that song was one of those band/fan moments that don’t happen very often - and as a result, the song has certain magic feel to it, a secret alchemy I can’t quite figure out and which makes me want to surrender all my objectivity.

Don’t get me wrong: like Joyful Noise, Feeling Alive isn’t perfect. There’s too much going on at times - strings, bells, stomps, choir, and apparently random lyrics complete with made-up words, all nicely gift-wrapped in the obligatory uplifting chorus. But who am I to judge if Taylor Hanson asks me not to call him señorita one moment, only to order me to lift my hands up high high and reach up to the sky the next? I’ll have to suspend my disbelief for four minutes and pretend that it all makes perfect sense.

Play or Skip? Play

The Final Verdict

According to Hanson, Play is supposed to be the ‘other side’ of Loud, so it seems unfair to judge it as a standalone record. Loud was a welcome change from the last two members EPs, with much stronger songs and a more cohesive sound.

In Play’s case, the sound is almost too homogenous, with three songs that sound very much alike - Man on Top, Joyful Noise and Feeling Alive - and I can’t help thinking that decision to mix the ‘choir’ to the studio songs is what causes it. I understand why Hanson did it - involving your fans in a record like this is a really, really nice thing to do. But would a non-fan get this? Is Play the kind of record that you’d try and get people to listen to? Probably not: there are better examples of what the band can do, and if you can bypass the Fanson Police and sneak a copy of the Sound of Light EP to your friends, you might, just might, finally manage to convert them.

Play is fun, uplifting record, with five songs that will no doubt sound great on stage: let's hope we all get a chance to hear them in the next tour.
The Tulsan Orphanage Choir
From the PDF inner sleeve notes - credit to HNET

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

A Song to Grieve - June and Everything After

But don't forget the songs

That made you cry

And the songs that saved your life

Yes, you're older now

And you're a clever swine

But they were the only ones who ever stood by you

Sometime last year, when I had yet to experience the kind of monumental pain that comes with loss, I had a conversation on social media with a fellow Hanson fan about one of the band’s best loved songs. The fan said she hoped that Hanson wouldn’t play 'With You In Your Dreams’ at the next concert she was due to attend. She had just lost a parent and was worried that WYIYD was going to make her sad during the concert; in other words, it would be a bit of a mood dampener. A mutual friend jumped in the conversation, agreeing with her. I disagreed with both and a debate ensued: why should artists censor themselves, I argued, and refrain from playing some of their most emotionally-charged, powerful songs? What about songs about breakups then? Should they avoid those too? What about songs about drinking - upsetting tee-totals? Or songs with religious undertones, maybe atheists wouldn’t like those. Where would it stop?

Then my father died, and everything changed. Only then, remembering that conversation, I realised I’d been a total jerk. BTTI was coming up a couple of months later and I suddenly knew what my fellow fan had been talking about: about not wanting to dissolve in a puddle of tears, mascara streaming down your face, in front of another 400 people, not to mention the band. I understood how she didn’t want to be sad for a handful of hard-earned days on a tropical island.

As it happened, they didn’t play ‘that song’ and I survived BTTI unscathed, although there were times when songs that were most definitely not about grief felt like a stab in the heart - like when Isaac decided to play something he’d written at age 14 called ‘A Life Without You’. It was about a teenage breakup (it was an Isaac song, after all) but to me, it was about the life still ahead of me, without my dad.

It was just a song, but for people like us, who live and breathe music every single day, there is always a song that mirrors what you’re going through. Music is like no other art form or medium; it’s way more powerful than a painting, a movie or a novel. People who don’t listen to music - I often wonder, how do they live? What do they find comfort in when their heart is broken? An episode of Big Brother, a re-run of At Home with the Kardashians? 

I can’t help thinking that, deep down, I’m lucky - lucky that I have songs in my life, snippets of auditory magic that have taken me by the hand, walked with me and stayed with me at the worst possible times. If that sounds like a good metaphor, actually that’s not even the case: I had my music with me when, day in, day out, I'd walk to the hospice where my mother, like my father a few months earlier, was spending her last few days. I walked there and back four times a day, twice daily in the ruthless midday heat of northern Italy in June. It was like being catapulted into a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, minus the tumbleweed.

Out in my own private meteorological hell, with nobody to drive me and no public transport, I’d just plug in my headphones and walk. During those walks, I listened to NEEDTOBREATHE over and over, letting their uplifting sound push me along, one foot at a time, for those 1.8 km that felt more like ten. I’d listen to ‘Rise Again’ (‘heaviness is only temporary/the daylight will soon break in) and found solace in ‘Multiplied’ (“May this offering stretch across the skies/And these Halleluiahs be multiplied”) even if I’m not religious. ‘Wasteland’ described the landscape around me but with a light at the end of the tunnel; “Hard Love” encouraged me to grit my teeth and hold on a little longer. And ‘Happiness’ - well, “Happiness” was like stepping into a Star Trek-style holodeck for a couple of minutes and shower in atomic particles of joy.

Strangely, during that time and in the weeks that followed my mother’s death, I hardly listened to Hanson. When I found myself awake at 3 or 4 AM, as my mind insisted in replaying me the movie of the last few days over and over, it wasn’t Hanson lulling me back into some kind of slumber, playing on a low volume through my headphones. It was NTB’s entire catalogue I'd put on shuffle, and eventually doze off to: it was their 'noisy' music with its drum crescendos, duelling banjos and Bear's rich, soulful voice that somehow got me through the night.

It’s not that Hanson’s music wasn’t right - it’s just that I’d found something that fit the moment. The thing is, it doesn’t matter who the singer is: when the rubber ring song appears, you just grab hold of it and hang on for dear life, praying that it will still keep you afloat if you allow yourself to stop treading water for a moment. “Go on,” the song seems to say, “take a breather. I promise I won’t let you drown.”

Music, huh? The things it does to you. It rips your heart into pieces you one moment and heals you the next. It will stir emotions inside you like nothing else, and leave you like the elegantly dressed gentleman in that Friedrich painting, standing on top of a rocky precipice, staring at a foggy landscape. Note how he doesn’t fall. Romantic poets used to call that experience ‘the sublime’ - and frankly, I can’t think of a more fitting description for that moment when music saves your life. 

These days are tough, these days are long

Sometimes it's hard, you carry on
But I hear a voice singing and I know it's true

The Wanderer by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

You can find NEEDTOBREATHE's music on their YouTube channel.
This is a clip of Hanson performing 'With You in Your Dream' in London in 2013. I was at that show so it's extra special to me.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Two Months Later, It's Still Loud - a review of Hanson's 2016 Members EP

Très chic

Okay, I wasn’t too keen on this song when I first listened to it in my hotel room in Tulsa. It sounded a bit weak, and another example of Taylor trying to hit high notes when a lower note would serve the song better. The lyrics didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, either:

Damn good looking/Oh, you make me say/Ooh, la la la

It gets worse:

And your lips are red to tease/And your hair is drawn back tight/But you play it off with ease/While you leave me paralyzed

Those are typical Taylor lyrics: he seems to have a penchant for fictional (we assume) femme fatales who bossy him around at the snap of their perfectly manicured fingers while he makes sex noises and reduces the fan base to jelly in the process. There are several such songs in the Hanson catalogue: ‘Give a Little’, ‘Cut Right Through Me’, ‘Show me the Way’ - and they tend not to be my favourite as I feel that, lyrically speaking, Taylor can do a lot better than that.

Things took a turn for the worse when I visited the I <3 Hanson store and saw the ‘French’ themed merch sporting the lyrics ‘Oh La La La’, complete with Eiffel Tower. Now call me a pedant (please do) but the French interjection is ‘Oh là là’ - two là làs, and accented ones too. If you’re going to have a French reference, at least make sure it’s correct. N’est-ce pas?

And then.

Then something happened. I heard the song live, and somehow, under the Hanson Spell, the silly lyrics didn’t seem so bad. Back in the UK, I put the EP on my iPod and found myself not skipping the song. Fast forward a couple of months and I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘Oh La La La’, despite its botched attempt at French and vapid lyrics is actually a damn good pop song: it’s catchy as hell and makes you want to stand up on your feet and dance around the house as you vacuum the floor. Yes it’s candy floss, but it’s damn fine candy floss nonetheless.

'Stop Me in My Tracks' starts with one of those roaring guitar riffs that you thought you’d last heard back in the 80s. What on earth….? Is this ‘Born to Run’? ‘Summer of ‘69’? Or, on second thoughts, are Hanson doing Matt Wertz doing the ‘80s? The idea is too post-modern for words.
So, whatever. Because here’s the thing: I love this song. It begs to be listened to whilst driving, ideally on a US freeway - although for those of us here in Europe, a more mundane, slow moving, congested motorway will have to do.

Anyway, back to the song, I have to admit that my opinion has been influenced by the review of a fellow fan, Michelle.

In her review, Michelle gives an alternative reading of the lyrics: instead of the predictable song about a girl, she argues that the song is Hanson’s love letter to their fans:

Every time I'm feeling dead inside
You're the one that brings me back

and then:

I don't wanna wake up dead inside
You're the one that makes me
You're the one that makes me feel alive

Or how about this:

You're the one that makes me feel alive
You're the one that makes me
You're the one that stops my heart

Since reading this interpretation of the song, I can’t see it in any other way. Can you?

He's got it (yeah baby he's got it) [photo by HNET]

I’ve found that Taylor’s vocals have been hit-and-miss in the past few years, and have often wondered why he insists in singing in such a high register when his voice sounds a lot richer when he takes it down a notch or two (last year’s collaboration with the Blues Traveler being a case in point).

And then came ‘No Rest for the Weary’, followed by a sigh of relief from me. This is exactly the kind of song that showcases Taylor’s voice at its very best: rich, soulful, full of emotion. It’s the kind of song that you want to play to your infidel friends to show them that the little boy who sang ‘Mmmbop’ grew up and got soul.

Lyrics wise, this is one of Hanson’s most inspired songs in a long time - at least since last year’s 'Grace Unknown'.

There’s evocative, effective words juxtaposition - “I'm a rich blasphemer/And a poor man's saint”; there’s a clever use of referencing to someone who may or may not be Jesus, without being too prescriptive: “Cause I take my cue/From a condemned man /So I break their rules /Whenever I can”

As others have argued, the ‘condemned man’ could equally be someone like Martin Luther King - this is the beauty of Hanson’s lyrics: even if the band has never made a mystery about their Christian background, their songs are always open to interpretation. These guys are too smart to paint themselves into the lyrical corner of Christian rock.

Will someone, for the love of God, give this man something loud?

As an ‘Isaac girl’ you’d expect this to be my favourite song of the EP but sadly this year Taylor stole the first and second spots with two of his leads. I blame the lyrics, which tread perilously close to the line between ‘interesting’ and ‘cliché’. Example:

“I go down to the river of life”. I’m told the river is a biblical reference but Bible or not, the river of life sounds a bit trite for me as a metaphor.

In the corner is a lady in black
For British fans, how can this line not evoke one image and one image only, i.e. the Scottish Widows advert?

Every pint is a picture of home

Again as U.K. fan I have problems with this line: for me, nothing is more mundane than the word ‘pint’. “Anyone fancy a pint?” with all its depressing connotations of after-work drinks is a phrase so ingrained in British popular culture that I find it very hard to swallow it in the context of an emotionally and spiritually charged song such as ‘Something Loud’.

Mercifully, an opportunity for redemption comes in the form of the chorus, which has clearly been written with crowd-singalong in mind:

Give me something stronger (crowd: STRONGER!)
Pour some holy water (WATER!)
Baptize me in fire (you got it!)
Bring me something loud, loud, LOUD! (fist in the air X 3 now!)

With that, despite an overall not entirely successful string of metaphors and ill-fitting brewery-related imagery, Mr Isaac Hanson won me over: yes, I am weak, and I find it hard to resist his vocals when he belts a song out like he does with 'Something Loud'. Also, as one of the lucky people who got to hear the song live in Tulsa, I can attest to the superiority of the song’s live version thanks to the absence of that annoying ingredient of so many Hanson songs: the horns.

Hanson had better play this at BTTI next year, or else.

Even Ulysses couldn't resist a siren's call
When I heard clips of this from 'The Making of Loud' streams, I immediately thought that it sounded a lot like 'Panic in the Streets'. Friends who know about music tell me that it’s because of the synthesiser they used in both songs. Whatever the reason, 'Sirens Call' has a very familiar sound, echoing not only 'Panic' but also last year’s EP track 'What Are We Fighting For' - that kind of mid-tempo, melancholy-laden Zac lead which I am rather indifferent to.

Lyrics-wise, it’s sophisticated enough to talk about sirens as mythological creatures rather than Disney characters. For me, it’s all a little too predictable and reminds me of 'What Are We Fighting For' - one of those songs which have an almost epic theme, asking deep and meaningful questions and saying all the right things like “who’s going to carry the flag” and “who's gonna fight the tide” to then fizzle out into nothing. It’s a song which should deliver a lot more but which ultimately feels hollow.

On the plus side though, I absolutely love the drums in 'Siren Call', which makes me wonder if it’s Taylor actually drumming here or if the clips they posted of him are just for show? Whatever the answer, the relentless drum beat really stands out, and steals the show from the vocals, rescuing the song for me and saving it from the dreaded skip button.

My Final Verdict

Play it Loud

I still regret my overly generous review of last year’s Inside the Box EP, which I would now call a disappointment, with the exception of course of 'Grace Unknown'. I wonder if the band realised that the majority of fans also found 'Inside the Box' below par, because they certainly raised the bar with 'Loud', which I would call a return to form - certainly the best since 'Sound of Light' (which for me, however, remains unrivalled in its position as Hanson’s Best EP of all time).

There’s plenty of energy in this EP to reassure all fans that this band still has it: passion, energy and that certain je ne sais quoi which can only be translated as “Hanson Magic”. In years of drought the pull is weakened by songs that don’t quite manage to steal your heart the way you think they should. Then, when you are about to lose faith, they hit you with something 'Loud'. You hear the silent call from far beyond, and off you go, bewitched, spell-bound, ready to board the next flight to Tulsa, because those pesky brothers have pulled it off once more.
Oh dear. Here we go round again.

Hanson's 2016 EP "Loud" is available to all fanclub members. Sign up here.