In 2010, Hanson released the great record everyone always knew they could make. Backed by a charming if not brilliant music video that depicted the group re-imagining The Blues Brothers’ “Shake A Tail Feather” scenes for lead single “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’”, Shout It Out highlighted Hanson’s soul music chops while staying true to the group’s sugar-soaked formula. It was the perfect combination of baby blue eyes and Tulsa, Oklahoma, musical pedigree, a move that served as proof these guys had finally grown up without having to resort to acoustic guitars or reflective ballads smothered in supposed sincerity. Indeed, the brothers Hanson had found their groove, and Shout It Out was the most addicting coming out party since 1996’s MMMBop soiree.
So, the follow-up would be even better, right? Three years after that initial dive into a pool filled with both rhythm and blues, these guys would surely come up for air only to find more horn-filled refrains and pop-funk structures, no? Shout It Out was only the beginning to a phase in the trio’s career that would ultimately see them become respected modern day soul savants, sharing stages with Fitz and the Tantrums or even the occasional Hall & Oates reunion, wasn’t it?
Well, in short, no. Anthem, the fourth release on their own 3GC Records imprint, is somewhat of an unexpected turn toward a harder, more aggressive sound. It’s not that the values of the groove are completely ignored; rather, it’s just that they are buried and forgotten in favor of what seems to be a play for simplicity and traditional rock. The result isn’t particularly awful anymore than it is particularly disappointing.
The tone is set quickly with opener “Fired Up”. Based heavily around a single (and admittedly infectious) guitar-god riff, the track feels like a 55-year-old father of three wearing leather pants drinking a Zima while enjoying a night on the town. Such is accentuated with an odd, prickly bridge that showcases Isaac’s soloing skills in a way that recalls Matchbox Twenty’s “Crutch” from their 2000 release, Mad Season. Yeah—weird, isn’t it? Yet almost in spite of this newfound edgier attitude, the guitars quickly morph into a section that introduces a new blend of rock and funk the brothers have only recently taken on. Still, hearing Taylor Hanson mutter “Come with us if you want to live” in somewhat of a confrontational tone brings more laughter than it does drama. It’s all too polished to be gritty, but too gritty to be good.
None of this is to say that the record doesn’t have its strong points. Single “Get The Girl Back” takes a while to settle in, but once it does, good luck trying to get the thing out of your head. Say what you want about Hanson, but they’ve never not known how to utilize a cowbell and some handclaps. Plus, it also serves as one of the tracks that theoretically could have appeared on Shout It Out if only for how its influence sits in gospel music. As for the winner of the Most Likely To Be On Shout It Out contest, that award would go to the aptly titled “I’ve Got Soul”. Actually, not only is it the funkiest the group have ever sounded on record, but it’s also the most competent. The horn runs and snappy snare drum alone evoke Steely Dan, quite the praise for a trio of brothers who were once lumped in with the boy band crowd. More of this, and they might have had a bona fide contemporary classic on their hands.
Instead, though, we are relegated to “Already Home”, an organ-filled rocker that opens up into a pop alternative chorus that simply doesn’t fit into the Hanson arsenal. Not only is it a pattern we’ve heard constantly from, say, Foo Fighters, it’s also a tactic that seems shoe-horned in with only the intention of making it feel modern. “Juliet” is better, but, ironically, dated. Heavy on piano, it has all the makings of a summer single … in 2011. Standing against the rest of its album-mates, the song is certainly one of the best-looking, though as is typically the case with high school heartthrobs, none of it seems abnormally interesting. “Tragic Symphony” runs into problems when it becomes the opposite: While infinitely more interesting than its peers with its double-time tempo and crescendo/decrescendo formula, it still needs to shed a few pounds before anyone votes it Prom Queen.
Actually, the tracks that would be left without a date in this metaphor are the ballads. “For Your Love” does bring out the acoustic guitars and allows what sounds like Isaac to step up to the mic. Based around “fighting/striving for your love”, the song will be beloved by the die-hard, once-teen-now-30-something Hanson fans, but to the naked ear, it’s just another schmaltzy slow dance. “Save Me From Myself” is a more traditional way to slow things down, its piano prominence playing a big part in the equation, but the sentiment is tired (and not one these guys haven’t used before, mind you). It’s fine enough, of course, but it’s just not memorable in any real tangible way.
And thus we find ourselves at the core of Anthem‘s problems: It’s fine enough, but it’s just not memorable in any real tangible way. Sometimes, expectations can cloud opinions, and as anyone who’s ever been let down before could tell you, even managed expectations can lead to an unfair interpretation of work that isn’t nearly as bad as it first seems. Here, though, Hanson show no signs of permanently setting up shop anywhere near Calumet City, Illinois, suggesting that their previous visit with Tom “Bones” Malone or Matt “Guitar” Murphy may very well have been their last. And that’s a shame, too, because expectations or not, Shout It Out traveled somewhere beyond good and wound up settling near great. Anthem, however, struggles just to be OK.
And while we all know OK is a lot better than bad, it’s still so far away from great.
// Notes from the Road
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