Confession. I didn’t have a clue who Jeff Hanson was before I got hold of this debut release, Son. Not an inkling (Well, that’s something of a lie. I did kind of hope he was the big ugly one from Hanson gone solo). Anyway, my suspicions are that you don’t know either. Unless you’re Jeff (Hi Jeff . . .) or from Nebraska (don’t ask).
The press guff wasn’t promising.
. . . raised in Waukesha, Wisconsin [don’t know where that is] . . . parents began his musical training at four [too sinister] . . . notoriety in the Lincoln, Nebraska scene [do they know what notoriety means?] . . . like a stream of consciousness author, he writes songs at once, spilling them onto tape with an outpouring of beauty and grace [oh God].
I could feel a mountain of prejudice looming over me and I hadn’t even listened to a second of the poor lad’s music. Here’s a tip, Jeff: find out who wrote this crap and shoot them. With beauty and grace.
Anyway, on it went. Acoustic strumming then suddenly. . . . Shit. Mixed up the CDs already. There’s a six-year old girl singing. Or maybe she’s his niece and she just sings the intro. Nope, little girl’s still singing. Right, it’s definitely the right CD. Do people in Wisconsin call their daughters Jeff?
His voice is unique. I have sincerely never heard anyone with a voice like it. It’s post-feminine—it’s completely androgynous. Jeff sportingly admits to being mistaken for a girl after live performances (despite being a portly chap with funny hair and a seeming taste for gimpy sweaters). It is difficult to know what to write about this voice. Another Jeff—Buckley—sang in high registers, but he had range. Hanson stays stratospheric throughout. It’s just alien and doubtless an acquired taste. I think I like it, but there is no guarantee that you will. I’d pay good money to hear him speak in his normal voice; the curiosity is killing me.
However, while the voice may be different, the music offers nothing new. He merrily admits to being “stuck in the past”, a legacy of his parents’ taste for Simon and Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles. He obviously loves his harmonies, but doesn’t sound like any of the above really. Not even a second-hand version. His closest contemporary I believe to be Kevin Tihista, who, under the name Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror, released Don’t Breathe a Word in 2001. Tihista’s penchant for high register warbling, harmonies and decent pop songs sits comfortably next to Hanson’s work on Son.
To his credit, Hanson plays everything on the album but the piano. Having said that, the piano is definitely the instrument that best complements his voice. The fuller sound of “You Are the Reason” and “If You Ever Say” are perfect examples of this. They are the best tracks on the album; plugged-in and gutsier. Without this multi-instrumental swaddling, the voice lacks and anchor.
This is no better evinced than on “Laughing for Nothing” and “Just Like Me” where his singing is especially fey and the backing is sparsely acoustic. Belle and Sebastian have succeeded for years by singing about edgy subjects in a fey way. Unfortunately, Hanson is as edgy as an egg. The lyrics are not so much bad as bland, inoffensive and without any sense of daring and this is what Hanson could be without his voice. The songs are well crafted but fail to really hold your attention, and the complex harmonies were almost soporific. Every time I started listening to the album, I found myself doing something else by the time it had finished. When debuts are described as having potential, it is almost inevitably a case of needing refinement. Hanson needs the opposite; he needs a bit of roughing-up.