Review Summary: How to sum up the nineties in three songs: Teen Spirit, Karma Police...MMMBop?
Take a moment to think of the following acts: The legendary Jackson Five. The sickly-sweet Osmonds. The synth-laden bop of Smoosh. The chicks-can-rock-too meets rock-in-the-name-of-the-Lord of Aly and AJ. The Disney-sponsored tween rock of the Jonas Brothers. Now imagine, if you will, the idea of a group of American siblings, almost always the young and clean cut kind, harmonising and making sugary-sweet music together. Seem like a familiar pitch? It should by now.
Rewinding about a decade back, one particular trio of brothers had topped the charts worldwide and were pinned up on every young girl’s wall. They were Taylor (fourteen at the time), Zachary (about eleven or twelve at the time) and Isaac (seventeen at the time), best known as Hanson. In 1997, they stormed the airwaves with Middle of Nowhere
, a collection of irresistibly polished, fun pop songs and the occasional lighter ballad that connected with countless youth of the day that were confused by OK Computer
, rocked too hard by The Colour and The Shape
or even too young (thankfully) to buy Three Dollar Bill, Yall$
. The album is no shine of complete brilliance by any stretch, nor a revolution in mainstream pop. Ten or so years after its release, it’s interesting nonetheless to realise the album isn’t as bad as one may have thought it was way back when.
Matter of fact, it’s much better.
Behind the production desks, another pair of siblings (the Dust Brothers) do an exceptional job with Middle of Nowhere
- in terms of mainstream pop, this was the freshest and most organic sound going in the charts at the time. Layers of percussion, drum programming or even turntable scratches are laced stylishly in-between upbeat 70s organ, smooth bass, four-on-the-floor garage rock beats and surprisingly formidable guitar work. Washed over the top are the wonderful harmonies the three brothers provide. The sound created when the three sing in unison isn’t perfect (neither a natural perfection like the Jacksons or an Autotuned perfection like the Jonas brothers), but it’s this that makes them so enjoyable, especially on the Bee-Gees-grabbing-their-balls chorus of “Thinking of You” and the gorgeously arranged piano ballad “I Will Come To You”. They are unique when blended together, but there are points where it seems a little forced- one of the many credited personnel in the liner notes is a “Vocal Director”, indicating that Middle of Nowhere
is as much Dust as it is Hanson brothers.
Taylor Hanson mostly comes across as a confident and upbeat vocalist- though how much said “Vocal Director” had to do with this is up in the air. Also, he doesn’t always stay on key and occasionally sounding somewhat like Tommy Pickles from Rugrats
(a hit kid’s show around the same time- coincidence? You decide) or a wannabe MJ. Just like the good middle brother he is, he shares vocal duties around to his siblings too, almost accidentally presenting two of the album’s best songs. Zac’s lead number “Lucy” is a charming folksy slow dance, complete with harmonica solo, Beatles harmonies and the kind of naïve double negatives one would expect from a twelve year old (“Now I don’t have nobody!”, he cries near the chorus). Big brother Isaac’s turn is the upbeat West Coast rock of “A Minute Without You”- an endearingly optimistic love note enveloped by a catchy, multi-layered chorus and a simple but effective chord progression reminiscent of “Sweet Jane”. Isaac’s voice is another exceptional feature of the band’s sound, which is a real shame as it simply is not prominent enough throughout the album, save for a couple of outstanding accompaniments of Taylor (“I Will Come To You” is the best example of this).
The brothers often sound excited just to be recording music (listen out for Zac’s barking backing vocals near the end of “Look at You”), and the lyrics cover their wide-eyed awe perfectly. In three tracks’ time the band have covered picket fences, eagles, trains, daisies, roses, the sun, crowds…whatever, it seems, the band encountered on their merry way to the studio. The cheery naivety in the songs can mostly be overlooked, however; particularly on the ballads- “Yearbook” is an ambiguous mystery surrounding an old schoolmate, whilst “With You In Your Dreams” is a heartfelt ode to the brothers’ grandmother. The best of the lot here, however, is the slightly warped and slow burning “Weird”. Taylor takes his range to a low-key whisper for the verses, whilst an echoing wave of keyboard and harmonies creates a significant distance from the more upbeat numbers like “Madeline” and “MMMBop” (of course
this review wasn’t going to go without mentioning THAT little number).
Of course, one could easily downplay the song structures as formulaic, but even something that’s deemed formulaic is impressive in this respect, coming from those who are doing it better than those twice their age.
Many years have past since Middle of Nowhere
dropped, and much has changed. Family musical groups continue, but none (save Kings of Leon) appear to show any lasting quality. The Hanson brothers themselves have grown up into young men, and continue to make music. Hell, even yours truly has nearly become a fully fledged member of society. A good pop tune, however, always manages to worm its way back into your frame of mind from time to time. Middle of Nowhere
is no exception.
You were all Hanson fans. Quit frontin’.