Underneath Acoustic by Hanson
Where has Hanson been? After storming the world in 1997 with their respective blond towheads and following up MMMBop in 2000 with another Def Jam Island record, This Time Around, they dropped off the planet, nowhere to be found… unless you happened to be driving through Tulsa; where they’ve spent the past four years orchestrating their escape from Def Jam Island and their subsequent comeback record. Hanson’s roots lie in live performance, which they practiced independently all the way back to 1992, when drummer Zac was barely old enough to write his name in crayon. Now they’ve returned to those roots with Underneath Acoustic Live, the DVD accompaniment to the album of the same name, on which the only performance credits belong to Hanson.
And it may be their best release yet. It competes effortlessly with other 2004 releases from similar live artists, rivaling Five for Fighting’s The Battle of Everything in terms of quality, and surpassing Jesse McCartney’s bubblegum pop Beautiful Soul in terms of pure listening ease.
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The live album’s quality is apparent from the very first seconds, when the video direction takes us overheard the stage and behind Isaac, Zac and Taylor as they take their respective seats on the darkened stage. Taylor greets the audience in crisp definition, and we quickly learn that the audio quality is just as good as the video — Isaac opens with the progression to “Strong Enough to Break” and it’s never sounded better.
The performances are as intimate as the video quality is good. Hanson has apparently spent their four years off doing nothing but performing in their Tulsa, Oklahoma studio, and are close to flawless; it takes a dedicated Hanson fan, or at least one very familiar with their recordings, to tell the difference between the Underneath studio tracks and the Underneath Live ones. Many of the performances run into another with scarcely a break or a word in between, but some of them are preceded by stories and laughter, and those are some of the best performances on the album. “River” is one of them; Isaac tells us about writing it for their first independent album when he was barely twelve years old, Taylor barely nine, and Zac just six years old; and when they follow by performing it, you’d never know they hadn’t played the song in over ten years. “With You In Your Dreams” is another one; Taylor correctly deduces that the audience would know this one (it’s from their breakout 1997 album Middle of Nowhere) and asks them to finish a line. He sings “And though my flesh is gone…” and is ruefully amused when the audience screams like a bunch of hormonal girls instead of singing the answering harmony. Isaac adds, “You can do better than that. It’s simple, it requires no real articulation”, and Zac doesn’t bother doing anything but laugh at them.
Each brother also takes the time to play one of their own compositions solo. (While Hanson credits all their writing to themselves as a band, usually each song was written chiefly by one brother.) Isaac introduces a song from 2000’s This Time Around by experimentally strumming a chord. When the audience obviously recognizes it as “Hand in Hand”, he seems cheered, and explains (perhaps a little too happily) that he wrote it about an old girlfriend that cheated on him, “but it’s okay: I got her back!” The look on his face when the audience reacts is almost more priceless than the song itself, but he follows up with a great bare-bones rendition. Zac’s three minutes are a little disappointing after this, as he picks out “The Walk” on a piano he’s obviously unfamiliar with as a sole percussionist, his vocals are distracted and a few times he slows or speeds the rhythm without seeming to notice; it might be the only disappointing track on the live album. Taylor soon makes up for it; the piano playing on “Crazy Beautiful” is almost exquisite in its simplicity and sounds better than it ever will on the studio album; without the distraction of production effects or background vocals, we’re captured by its quick and flighty melody and seduced by Taylor’s anguished vocals.
After spending two hours with them on Underneath Acoustic Live, it’s hard to believe that these men are the same little blonde boys that first rocked the world and then drove it crazy when the radio just wouldn’t quit playing “MMMBop”. They’ve grown into talented musicians who know how to take a hook and turn it into something beautiful, and they can strip down a performance to its most naked elements and keep it worth listening to. They obviously know how to hire producers too; the sound quality is as good as any live album and better than some. Here’s hope for more of the same, guys.