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Sounding like a revamped Jackson 5 for the '90s, Hanson came storming out of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1997, blessed with photogenic looks and a surprisingly infectious sense of melody. Hanson had a sunny pop sense that stood in direct contrast to the gloomy grunge that had dominated the first half of the '90s, yet they also arrived with hip credentials -- a handful of the cuts on their debut were produced by the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys, Beck, Sukia), and the rest were produced by Steve Lironi, who helmed Black Grape's debut. Along with the hip production, the record was comprised of songs co-written by the band with professional songwriters like Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil and Desmond Child. It had the sound of a hip recording and the craft of professional pop record, making Middle of Nowhere the best of both worlds.
Hanson was certainly reminiscent of an earlier era, namely the early '70s, when teens could rule the top of the charts. Like the Jackson 5, the Cowsills, and the mythological Partridge Family, all of the members of Hanson were brothers. Isaac, aged 16 at the time of their debut, played guitar; 13-year-old Taylor sang lead and played keyboards; drummer Zac was 11 years old. As children in Tulsa, they sang around the dinner table, usually '50s and '60s rock and R&B standards and gospel songs. Eventually, the group began playing around Tulsa, performing at local festivals, at school, and around town. The brothers first attempted to break into the music industry around 1992, when they approached music attorney Christopher Sabec and sang a cappella for him. Impressed with their talents, he became their manager and began shopping them to major labels.
Between 1992 and 1995, five labels passed on Hanson. The group decided to release a pair of indie records while waiting, starting with 1995's pop-filled Boomerang. Following that album's release, Hanson began playing their own instruments, which strengthened their writing considerably, as shown on the single "MMMBop," which signaled that they were moving toward a fresher, hip-hop and soul-influenced direction. The group signed with Mercury Records on the strength of "MMMBop," and they were hooked up with producer Steve Lironi, who helped the band with arrangements. Over the next year, the group worked on their album with a variety of collaborators, including co-writers like Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Desmond Child, and Mark Hudson; nine of the 13 tracks on the final album featured contributions from professional writers. They also recorded a handful of tracks with the Dust Brothers, who were riding high on the success of Beck's Odelay.
Prior to the spring 1997 release of their debut album, Middle of Nowhere, Mercury put the publicity machine in full gear, hiring Tamara Davis (Sonic Youth, Luscious Jackson) to direct the video for "MMMBop" and courting the press and radio. The efforts worked, as "MMMBop" debuted at number 13 on the U.S. charts upon its April release, and the album earned positive reviews and multi-platinum sales. Hanson became major teen idols, and as the holidays approached, they issued the Christmas-themed LP Snowed In. The streak of album releases continued in 1998, when the brothers reissued their earlier independent recordings as Three Car Garage, and also released a concert album, Live from Albertane.
Following that flurry of activity, Hanson remained largely silent while they worked on a proper follow-up to Middle of Nowhere; in the meantime, thanks in part to Hanson's breakout success, teen pop acts like Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, and *NSYNC came to dominate the pop landscape. Hanson finally emerged in the spring of 2000 with This Time Around, a more mature, measured record that represented a bid for credibility outside their primarily teenage audience; featuring guest spots from Jonny Lang and Blues Traveler's John Popper, the album also reflected the new influence of rockers like Matchbox Twenty. The record didn't make much of an impression on the charts, however, setting the stage for a departure from their label during the recording of their third album.
Following their separation from Island, Hanson set up their own 3CG label and released Underneath in April 2004. Songwriting collaborations with Matthew Sweet and Gregg Alexander built on the mature sound of This Time Around. With teen pop behind them, the band shifted their audience to something more grassroots and indie pop by completely financing the marketing of Underneath in the U.S. and supporting the release of the album with straight-ahead, no-frills shows at various colleges. Upon release, the album entered the Billboard Independent Chart at number one and was soon picked up by Cooking Vinyl in the U.K., JVC in Japan, Univision in Mexico, and Sony in Southeast Asia. The success of the album put the group on a whirlwind tour: 25 cities across 13 countries in just over four weeks, including a sold-out show at London's famed Shepherd's Bush Empire. While the band was traveling the globe playing to larger and larger crowds, the DVD Underneath Acoustic Live was released, featuring a Chicago show from their more up-close-and-personal 2003 acoustic tour. Their 2004 tour was captured on The Best of Hanson Live and Electric, released in both CD and DVD formats in 2005.
Throughout the course of their 2005 tour, Hanson stopped at various colleges throughout the States to showcase and discuss Strong Enough to Break, a documentary about their time with Island Def Jam. The film's critical take on the label -- and the music industry in general -- took its toll when Island released a Hanson comp, MMMBop: The Collection, in late 2005; the album flopped, and Hanson's fans criticized Island for releasing the disc. The band rounded out the year by touring Europe and South America, and in the summer of 2006 Hanson traveled to South Africa to record a track, "Great Divide," with a school choir in Soweto. The single was released later that year, and the proceeds were donated to AIDS research.
Hanson dove deeper into charity work with their next album, The Walk. During the accompanying tour, the brothers began taking mile-long barefoot walks before every show, encouraging their fans to do the same. The experience was meant to imitate the walks taken by African school children each day, and every mile walked resulted in more charitable donations for Africa. Isaac Hanson underwent surgery in late 2007 for a pulmonary embolism; the tour was suspended accordingly, although it resumed its pace after his recovery in mid-2008. That same year, Taylor joined the supergroup Tinted Windows alongside members of Cheap Trick, Fountains of Wayne, and Smashing Pumpkins. The band released an album in 2009 and toured briefly, but Taylor had returned to the recording studio with his brothers before the year was up.
Hanson emerged early the following year with their eighth studio album, Shout It Out. The album performed respectably, debuting at 30 on the Billboard 200, and the group supported it with numerous shows that stretched well into 2012. Their next album, Anthem, arrived in June 2013, faring even better on the charts than its predecessor. In early 2017, Hanson announced a major tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of their formation. The five-month Middle of Everywhere: 25th Anniversary Tour also served to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band's debut album, Middle of Nowhere. The brothers rounded out their banner year with the release of their second holiday LP, Finally It's Christmas.
Hanson's project for 2018 was String Theory, where the trio revisited highlights from their catalog with the assistance of string arranger of David Campbell. Hanson took the String Theory show on the road in the summer of 2018, following it with a studio recorded double album of the same name in November of that year. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
- Tulsa, OK
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