This Time Around
3 and 1/2 stars
By ROB SHEFFIELD
These boys have a lot to answer for, don't they? Before Ike, Taylor and Zachary came along to melt every barrette in America, the radio was a very different place. Three years after "MMMBop," we've got boy bands up the yeah, masterminded by an Orlandinavian conspiracy of Dr. Evils who hide in their labs and ask the musical question, "Why settle for trillions when we could make...billions?"
Even at its most automatic, the teen-pop La Machine can crank out great singles like the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" or LFO's "Summer Girls." But as sure as Michael J. Fox played Alex P. Keaton, none of these groups has the style, imagination or musicality of Hanson. Like a blond three-headed hydra, Hanson loom over the competition, making all other teen idols sound like Gerber-sucking clowns. And they've already made more good albums than the Bay City Rollers, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Famile, and Kristy and Jimmy McNichol combined!
Fortunately, Hanson took their time making a follow-up to the debut Middle of Nowhere, and they didn't spend their vacation buying matching white suits, dance lessons or wind machines. Instead, they matured into a bang-up rock & roll band, singing and playing the high-energy gems on This Time Around with a surprisingly adult confidence. Teen-pop acts usually fall on their faces when they try to get taken seriously; count yourself lucky if you can't remember the Jackson 5's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or the Osmonds' "He Ain't Heavy...He's My Brother." but Hanson's style of maturity is old-fashioned classic rock, which they attack with the zest of kids taking their first cruise down the strip in the old man's vintage Mustang. Without the Dust Brothers helping at the controls, This Time Around has more rock and less funk than Middle of Nowhere, showing off Hanson's deepened harmonies, their expanding instrumental prowess and Taylor's increasingly sexy, bluesy growl. Hey, when it's time to change, it's time to change.
Nothing on This Time Aroun has the super-sugar-crisp rush of "MMMBop," but singles like that roll around only once in a band's career; the Jackson 5 never topped "I Want You Back," either. The sound still includes scratching and dance beats, but there's more emphasis on raging guitar hooks, making Hanson sound like the Black Crowes with a tighter sense of structure and a friskier set of hormones. The big ballad "This Time Around" has a Stax-style uplift, and the closing piano meditation, "A Song To Sing," has a genuinely grown-up air of melancholy. But the real chalupa-droppers here are the fast ones, especially "You Never Know," "If Only" and the amazing "Runaway Run," where Taylor hits soulful high notes that could make a grown woman blush. If I'm not mistaken, these kids have been spending quality time with Exile on Main Street, maybe even Sticky Fingers, and you can hear a new Stones-y punch in their riffs - there's fever in the funk house now.
Some of This Time Around doesn't work: Power ballads like "Love Song" and "Save Me" are so professional they're downright bland, as if the boys feel obligated to keep their personalities in check. But truth be told, Hanson duds are easier on the stomach than 'N Sync's best efforts. Even the overstated message song "Sure About It" moves along a graceful hand-clap beat and crafty guitar hooks. The lyrics take an alarming turn toward social relevance - "cocaine load" rhymes with "trench coat," uh-oh - but Hanson manage to sound thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate when they struggle to make sense of the outside world, just as they did in "MMMBop." On This Time Around, Hanson leave the rest of the teen pack eating their Oklahoma dust, pulling out so far ahead that the boy-band dudes won't be able to look each other in the eye anymore. In the words of the Bay City Rollers, they rock it up, roll it up, do it all and have a ball. The Hanson brothers play exactly what they want to play, making records that they themselves might actually want to listen to, and it shows.