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October 28, 2009
In defense of the Hanson brothers

By ANDREW DANSBY
ENTERTAINMENT COLUMNIST

There's little point in dancing around it: I like Hanson. Always have. I've also spent enough time listening to Slayer, Motorhead, Mayhem, Krisiun and the like to feel comfortable with my affinity for this trio of pop-friendly siblings.

Like keyboardist/singer Taylor Hanson, I wasn't a Gilmore Girls watcher, but I read recently that one character on the show referred to Hanson as "the new Bee Gees." Then it all made sense.

Like the brothers Gibb, the brothers Hanson were young stars. They're also long on the kind of harmonies only siblings can create and rarely short on hooks. Asked about the Bee Gees, Taylor says, "what a heartbreaking reality to think they're no longer making music together.

"We saw them perform one time as a band before Maurice (Gibb) passed away. I remember thinking it was earth-shattering. They just stood and sang. They weren't doing anything more, but it was so powerful. I remember thinking, 'This is something you've got to live up to. To get people to feel like that.' "

Also, like the Bee Gees, Hanson has dealt with a certain cynical stigma. For the Bee Gees it was disco, for which they've been largely absolved since the reviled dance music has inspired a subsequent generation of indie rock. For Hanson, it was Mmmbop and early success as a teen pop band showered in squeals of its adoring (and mostly female) fans.

The comparisons to other teen idol acts were off from the outset. Unlike your typical boy band -- a troublesome phrase often affixed to singing acts rather than bands -- Hanson wrote and played their own songs. And to their credit, they've chosen not to run from their past. Mmmbop, a little silly but still infectious, remains a live staple, but it's nestled alongside smarter and more complex pop songs featured on albums Underneath and The Walk. "We will probably always be, to a degree, misunderstood because we were successful so young," Taylor says. "And it feels like a long time ago, but nothing about that song or that era feels dishonest."

He points out that the band's music has a 1970s feel, the result of "three white guys from the Midwest" -- Taylor, guitarist Isaac and drummer Zac -- listening to a lot of old R&B and soul growing up. "Three Dog Night, the Doobie Brothers, with all those harmonies, that's where our center is. And I think, to a degree, we were also subconsciously children of Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, that Tulsa sound."

The group has also clearly spent time with records by Big Star, the Cars and just about any other power-pop band worth its salt.

Hanson wouldn't have found success were it not for the music. It wouldn't have maintained its success were it not for an admirable business acumen. The brothers remain one of the fan-friendliest bands. Unlike too many teen idols, they've managed to maintain a contingency that wants to grow up with them.

"There's a reason nobody wants their daughter to be a musician," Taylor says. "That kind of early success, it's built to fail. But I feel like we had a lot of good tools. Being a writer is an essential part for most musicians. If you're not the creator, you'd better have a good relationship with reliable people you depend on. Otherwise, one day Diane Warren doesn't have a good song. Then you've got a problem.

"We've also made a real effort to make it more than just releasing a record. We're focused on developing a community around our music."

The latest release is Stand Up Stand Up, an EP available at dates on the band's current tour, which stops at House of Blues on Saturday. The band was something of a trailblazer in breaking with a major label and going it alone. Still, Taylor admits it makes its coin on the road. A new record isn't due until next spring, so the EP gives the band something new to offer as well as an excuse to hit the road and strike up its fellowship with an adoring audience.

Sycophantic fervor -- urbandictionary.com would likely refer to it as "fansondom" -- makes the band an easy target. There's lewd Hanson fan fiction and scads of TV punchlines at its expense, which seems base, easy and mean-spirited considering the brothers tend to come across as unfailingly friendly and inclined toward charity. Their crime, it seems, was hitting MTV's TRL at just the right time. I very likely contributed, albeit in a small way, to a larger culture of Hanson ridicule. Then a friend who spent most of his time listening to Norwegian black metal told me he was impressed with songs that would eventually appear on Underneath (2004), which I quite liked.

My appreciation is more understated than the squealing set, but it's honest. Hanson worked with Matthew Sweet and the Dust Brothers. Taylor has a side project, Tinted Windows, that includes members (or former members) of Fountains of Wayne, Cheap Trick and Smashing Pumpkins. Ben Kweller, another teen star done good, is a friend and fan. Their bona fides are sufficient for musicians, it's a broader public that can't get past one song that remains unconvinced.

But that's fine. There are enough cynical bands, there are enough loud bands. I enjoy both. And I also like Hanson.