Monday, 4 March 2019

BTTI 2019: An Executive Summary


It started badly, with a repeat of last year’s weather that was more Back to the Quagmire than Back to the Island, and as a result, our first day was spent between huddling under the Level gazebo and swimming in the rain. It definitely felt like a lost day, although at least the rain had stopped in time for the show to take place on the beach rather than in the dreaded “Greenhouse”. 



This year, there were no official daytime activities other than a Q&A on String Theory, which was interesting enough until I found myself zoning out at the umpteenth “I come from a village in Brazil” mention. The lack of activities meant that we had more time to spend by the pool - something many of us welcomed. But on the last day we found out that the Dunn’s River excursion, which for this year had strangely been included in the price, had featured a surprise appearance from Taylor. My friends and I had been to Dunn’s River before and as a result, we had chosen to skip the excursion: needless to say, we were disappointed to have missed out. Apparently some people had been given hints from IG staff that it would be 'worth' going on the excursion; but that information had not reached us. So a Hanson surprise turned into a missed opportunity for anyone who had stayed at the resort, not to mention for fans with mobility problems, for whom a climb up that treacherous waterfall was out of the question anyway.

Aside from the Dunn’s River fiasco though, this year’s BTTI was the most fun for me. I had a great group of friends, I splashed around in the pool, I did yoga on the beach and made the most out of the free time that this year’s activity-free schedule afforded us. It was great to see a couple of members of staff again - Christina at the buffet and Juliet at the Level Grill (and yes, she remembered rescuing me from the helicopter-like bug on Pictures Day the previous year).


I loved sitting by the bonfire late at night, catching up with with friends I’ve known online for a while but never properly got to hang out with before. For the first time, I fully embraced the party vibe of Taylor’s DJ set, dancing with my roommate like we really didn’t care. I stayed up until ridiculous o’clock every night, got very little sleep and je ne regrette rien. I can’t help it: the nighthawk in me likes nothing better than those late night, liquor-fuelled conversations that just happen in that twilight zone between the end of a party and closing time, when the lure of an empty barstool and the unmistakable scent of sanity will cause the strangest, whackiest Bukowskian characters to latch on to you in a determined, but ultimately futile attempt to gatecrash your party.

There's a reason why Hopper's "Nighthawks" is my favourite painting

And inevitably I felt nothing but utter despair the next morning, when, after three hours’ sleep, I found myself having to pack a suitcase in record time - a record I however managed to beat, with no hair straighteners left behind.

Almost two days later and I was home, looking tired and bedraggled and sporting the kind of greasy skin you get after three flights and a diet of airline food. I unzipped my suitcase to be greeted by a ton of laundry, a beach towel I will never bring myself to use and a bank of awesome memories that will see me through the rest of the year.

This year, however, there’d be no time for the usual post BTTI blues to set in: less than a week later I would be packing my suitcase once again, albeit for way less exotic destinations: String Theory was coming to Europe. So goodbye Jamaica, hello Birmingham: but that’s for another post altogether.




Back to the Island is an event run by Island Gigs on behalf of Hanson. All information for the 2020 event can be found here.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Pick a Favourite Hanson Brother: the battle of the solo sets

(Trigger warning: this post contains references to the loss of a parent.)


Zac: A Coming of Age

Setlist

If you read my blog posts on last year’s BTTI, you might recall that I’d been very unimpressed by Zac’s solo set. Well, this year Zac amply made up for it: first, I loved the setlist, which included two new songs, “Reading Your Mind” and “The Ballad of Seymour Better Times” (the latter had first been performed at the 2018 solo set). I will never tire of “Musical Ride” which sums up the life of a Hanson fan, and I’ll forgive Zac for messing up the beginning of “Fire on the Mountain”. Predictably, “Bittersweet”- by now a regular staple of these solo sets - made an appearance, and the rarely played “Use Me Up” also got some airtime, preceded by a funny introduction in which Zac recalled how that song had caused concern among some fans about his mental well-being.

I first saw Zac perform a solo set in 2015, and back then he performed song after song without much talking. Without his brothers on stage, Zac seemed a little uncomfortable, too focused his performance to interact with the audience. Fast forward to 2019 and it’s impossible not to notice how the youngest Hanson has come out of his shell - how relaxed he now looks on stage on his own, joking, introducing songs, making fun of his mistakes. It was without a doubt the best Zac solo set I’d seen so far, and afterwards, I found myself contemplating the possibility of switching to Team Zac. There, I’ve said it.

YOU! Join my team, now!


Isaac: Give A Little Déjà Vu

Setlist

I could have sworn that Isaac had played “Too Much” - a David Garza cover- last year, but a quick check through past setlists proved me wrong: he’d last played it in 2017. Similarly, “More than Anything”, which Isaac had not included in last year’s solo set, had still, however, made an appearance in the 2018 Members Only setlist.

There were still some repeats from 2018: “Smile”, the now ever-present “A Life Without You”, “River” and “Being Me”, and a few returners from 2017 - my Hanson-imprinting-song, “Deeper” and the universally loved Isaac lead “Watch Over Me”, which was interesting to hear as a solo. We also got treated to a performance of “Bad for Me” from last year’s Animal Instincts EP (you know, The One With Two Isaac Leads?).

It was a good, solid set and I enjoyed it, but I would have liked to hear at least a couple of never played - or rarely played - songs, like “I Don’t Know” (which my friend Kasey has been requesting at every available opportunity) or the still elusive “Grace Unknown”, which Isaac attempted, and unfortunately messed up, in 2016. Maybe next year. As it stands, my favourite Isaac Solo Set remains Cancun 2015 when he totally brought down the house, with even people from neighbouring hotels cheering from their windows.

I need to hang on to my team...but how?



Taylor: Ocean’s Eleven

Setlist

One can’t help wonder how many people handed over their credit cards to Island Gigs for BTTI 2019 on the strength of Taylor’s ‘swim in the ocean’ the previous year. I’m telling you, that man knows how to get his hands on your hard-earned cash. This year, however, there were no stampedes into the ocean, just a succession of songs that made the set feel unusually long. Taylor’s solo sets tend to be short and on point: he comes, he plays, he conquers, and in an mmmbop, he’s gone. I was convinced that this year’s set had run longer, but a quick check of last year’s setlist proved that I just imagined things (that’s the Taylor Hanson effect for you) - both 2018 and 2019 sets included 11 songs.

Among those eleven, he played “Lost Without You”, which rarely gets the full band treatment, and “This is Criminal” - a song from Fools Banquet which most fans seem to really like, but that left me largely indifferent.

I was left anything but indifferent, however, a couple of songs later when Taylor played “Never Let Go”. I’d heard that song live plenty of times by now but that day something felt different; maybe it was the setting, the ‘other’ show that was doing its thing in the background, palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze, the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. Whatever the reasons, this time that song really got to me, and I was taken back to a hot day in June 2016, to a hospice room next door to the one where my father, too, had spent his last days, eight months earlier. In a room that was named after a classical composer, I waited all day for my mother to let go. She had already gone, really, sent on her way by a cocktail of drugs administered before we could get there. She had let me and my sister go the night before, when she'd sent us home so that she could watch the Rosary on TV and we could get some rest.

Sometimes only music or poetry can articulate how you feel, so I’ll let the song do the rest.

Just lay down, and let your worries sleep
Don't think now, the water's dark and deep
Cause you know
That I love you and never let go

Just lay down, put those worried thoughts to rest
So when life pulls you down, on my shoulder rest your head
Cause you know
That I love you and never let go

Soon I had tears streaming down my face - a first for me, in a lifetime of concert going. As I frantically searched for tissues in my bag, I was also acutely conscious that I was three rows into the crowd, facing the piano at exactly the right angle to be in Taylor’s line of sight. For once, I was really glad that he had kept his sunglasses on, so that I didn’t have to see him see me.

But you know what? It makes me feel a little better to know that there were a lot of other people in tears during that performance, and I like to believe that there was some collective healing going on at that moment, for all those of us who needed it. Does it move you? Does it soothe you? Sometimes the answer is a very straightforward yes.

Tears aside, Taylor’s solo set was terrific and even managed to de-throne Zac from my personal BTTI 2019 Solo Set Chart. That presented a new problem though: would I have to switch to Team Taylor?

My team has a waiting list: get in line!


(Full video of "Never Let Go" at BTTI 2019 - credit to Monica Pereira)


Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Members Only Show: "a really bad night" for Hanson?


Members Only Show


The Members Only Show set is probably the BTTI ‘theme’ that gets the most votes every year because, well, when else do you get to hear those songs? For 2019, the Members Only set would fall on the final show - a momentous but inevitably bittersweet culmination of the event. I had high expectations: I’d loved the String Theory show and earlier in the day, I’d seen Taylor perform the best solo set I’d seen in five years. 

Technical problems crept up two songs into the set. On my phone pad, where I keep a note of the setlist, I’d jotted down ‘sound!!!’ next to “Best of Times”. Shame, because the Isaac lead from the 2013 Sound of Light EP has become a kind of unofficial BTTI anthem and it’s one of those special ‘island moments’ that I always look forward to. Four songs later, the guys came to the front of the stage for “On and On”, one of the most visually striking songs in Hanson’s repertoire, providing a rare opportunity to see the three brothers play guitar together. Only, this time the only Hanson with a guitar was Zac, as Taylor and Isaac waited, to no avail, for someone to bring them their instruments.

Dude, where's my guitar?

Zac started to play and for a few awkward seconds we were reminded that Taylor doesn’t know what to do with himself when he’s not playing an instrument or bouncing around the stage, whacking his thigh with a tambourine. After performing some comedy air guitar, Taylor finally went to fetch a shaker. That solution didn’t keep Taylor happy for very long: he unceremoniously handed over the shaker to Isaac before heading over to the sound tent. The whole situation was frankly bizarre: I don’t know why nobody had brought Isaac and Taylor their guitars - it could be that they were still being tuned, or maybe their tech forgot, although that seems really unlikely as even the Melia’s stray cats would have known that during “On and On” three guitars would be needed - and I’m pretty sure their sound tech could actually stand in for the band by now.

Taylor is very unimpressed

There was one glitch after another, and at one point - I can’t remember exactly when -  Taylor’s keyboard was taken away and replaced with a different one. The show then took a turn for the seriously wrong with “Stop Me in My Tracks” - my notes say ‘forgot most of the lyrics’. Hanson forgetting lyrics is nothing new, but this time it felt different because the guys weren’t making a joke of it. And then, during “Dance Like You Don’t Care”  - another BTTI staple - the whole thing fell apart: Taylor, seemingly unable to recall more than a few lines of the lyrics, looked panic-stricken, and at one point, as he opened his mouth to sing, no sound was coming out. To me, Taylor looked as if his mind had gone completely blank. 

Of the three brothers, Taylor is undeniably the perfectionist and a consummate professional who rarely makes mistakes on stage - if anything, he’s the one who shoots his brothers dirty looks when they mess up - with Isaac usually, and more than justifiably, at the receiving end. Seeing Taylor Hanson freeze onstage is something I was not prepared for, and it almost felt wrong as I watched in utter disbelief as the usually unflappable Hanson brother tried, and failed, to get it together. At one point, a couple of us exchanged worried looks; someone said ‘maybe he’s sick?’. Whatever the reasons for the meltdown, I felt really sorry for Taylor in that moment, and I wished I could have told him that everything was going to be okay - that he was playing to his fans, and that we would always have his back. But my telepathic communication skills are somewhat underdeveloped and, when, a couple of songs later, Taylor sat at the drums for “I Don’t Want to Go Home”, he looked utterly dejected.

Hanson still managed to partly rescue the set towards the end, with some classics from their repertoire - “Thinkin’ Bout Something”, “Give a Little” and “If Only” - songs that, by now, the band could probably perform in their sleep. It was a good save, undone, however, by a frankly terrible performance of the ultimate BTTI final set song, the eponymous “Back to the Island” which Hanson and their musical guests usually sing together. Lewis Watson was on the congas, while Jacob Tovar mysteriously refused to join the band on stage; then the song started and as usual, Isaac forgot some of the lyrics. But Isaac forgetting that song’s lyrics is almost expected: there was something else, but as I’m not a musician, all I can say is that, to me, it sounded really, really ‘off’.

At least it's over!
When it was over, the guys disappeared inside the sound tent and I thought, is that how BTTI 2019 ends? But soon a tech was taping lyrics sheets onto the stage floor, and then the band came out again for a Zac-led cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. I am not exaggerating when I say that Zac saved the day - or the night - with that performance. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that, in many ways, Zac was the real star of BTTI 2019 but I will save that for my final post. Then, still probably trying to make up for a less-than-perfect show, Hanson treated us to a flawless rendition of “Wish That I Was There”. Hanson harmonies are like unicorn dust, and for a couple of minutes, I was under the spell again, endorphins flooding every available space between my nerve cells. “Ahhhh” - I thought, “That’s what it’s supposed to be like. Here’s my credit card, and as you’re there, have one of my kidneys too, oh- and my soul.”

When Zac said 'this is my rockstar pose!'

Sadly, the rush from that particular Hanson-hit was short-lived, and as the band took their final bow and left the stage for the last time on the island that year, I stood there and wondered, “what the hell did just happen tonight?”

The last bow

And yet, despite the daisychain of errors that had plagued the show, I’d still enjoyed the Members Set, at least in part. The setlist had a good mix of songs from Members Kits and recent EPs and when things were going right, the guys were full of energy. When I was filling the BTTI 2019 feedback form last week, I ranked that almost-disastrous final show higher than the technically successful but somewhat underwhelming Rock All Night set.

Everybody can have a bad night, including Hanson, and the Members Only concert at this year’s BTTI was clearly a case of ‘a really bad night’. There might have been other factors at play; during his solo set, Taylor had openly admitted to being tired, something that an early start for the excursion to Dunn’s River would not have helped. In addition to that, BTTI was taking place on the back of a busy year for Hanson, who were flying to Europe a week after the event for the next leg of the String Theory tour.

So it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to figure out that maybe Hanson let standards slip a bit this year, possibly through the false sense of security afforded by the success of an event that was now in its seventh year - a magnified case of ‘it’ll be alright on the night’. But one only had to see the look on Taylor’s face to know that he knew that it wasn’t alright: and so, perhaps, that disappointing show was a much-needed wake-up call for Hanson, the motivation they need to raise their game for BTTI 2020, to refresh the setlists and above all, to remember that a lot of things can go wrong even in tropical paradise.



Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Symphony on the Beach: Hanson give String Theory the Island Treatment



Please note: this post was written before I saw a ‘real’ String Theory show with an orchestra.

If you read my two part review of the String Theory double album, you’ll already know that I am not a huge fan of the recorded project, mostly because of the recycling of old vocals and a sense that the orchestral arrangement didn’t really add much to some of the songs. However, I was very excited about the live experience, so when Hanson announced a String Theory shows at BTTI, I knew I’d be in for a treat.

As it was confirmed during the “What is String Theory?” Q&A that afternoon, there would be no orchestra at the show, but instead, the band would play to the instrumental version of the album. It was no big surprise - let’s face it, how feasible would it be to get an orchestra on that small stage on the beach? Sure, it wasn’t going to be the real thing, but it was still going to be an upgraded version of the album, and I was all for that.

What is String Theory?

What I was looking forward to the most about the ST show was the opportunity to hear those songs with the orchestral arrangements and the guys’ voices as they sound now, and as the set started, I knew I was not going to be disappointed. Performed live, “Reaching for the Sky” had an ethereal quality that just does not come across on record, and if it sounded beautiful against a backing track, I can only imagine what it will be like with an actual orchestra. “Joyful Noise” was uplifting, and Zac’s voice sounded better than it does on the studio version - especially as he omitted those breathy Michael Jackson-style ‘ahhs’ in between ‘go tell the doctor’ and ‘that it heals your soul’. “Dream It Do It” was inspired and anthemic and Zac’s voice was pitch-perfect on “Chasing Down My Dreams”. 

Remember when I said in part 1 of my album review that “Siren Call” was the best song in the album? I’m even more convinced of that now: “Siren Call” is a dark horse that haunts you well after the catchier, better-known songs have faded from memory. “Me Myself and I” has taken on a whole new meaning since I’ve read Holly’s theory on the lyrics - on how the whole meaning of the song changed when an ‘it’ became ‘we’. Holly’s alternative take on the song casts a darker, sombre shadow on our perception of the band, and I couldn’t help thinking of something Zac had said during the Q&A - a hint at the difficulties of being a band after so many years, when your interests and priorities are changing. I am paraphrasing, of course, but that was definitely the gist of what he was saying, and it doesn’t come as a big surprise after all, especially about the much-hyped ‘near split’ of 2012. On a happier note though, I love the fact that, in String Theory “Me Myself and I” Isaac gets to sing a verse, so as far as I’m concerned, this version is actually superior to the original.




After a symbolic intermission of less than a minute, the show continued with “Battle Cry” - one of my favourite songs in the album. As I had hoped, “Battle Cry”  sounded absolutely epic live and Zac slayed it. That’s one song I am dying to hear with the full orchestra. And I felt the same after a poignant performance of “Breaktown”- which gains a whole new level of depth now that it’s being sung by a man in his thirties. I can’t help thinking that the best thing about the String Theory project is that songs like “Broken Angel” and “Breaktown” are now in heavy rotation, together with EP tracks like “Joyful Noise” and “No Rest for the Weary” that would otherwise only ever get aired at members only events. I don’t know if Hanson are particularly interested in reaching the general public these days, but I’m glad that they’re putting these songs out there; they showcase a band that has done a lot more than writing a hit song in the 90s.



After getting the crowd to pump their fists in the air with “I Was Born” and an equally charged “Sound of Light”, the show ended with “Tonight” - another song seldom played before String Theory. Once the band left the stage and the lights were out, I felt that I’d just been present to something really special that will probably never happen again. String Theory “BTTI Edition” may not have been the real thing, and there were a few occasions when the live instruments drowned out the backing track, but that was a price worth paying to get the symphony experience on a beach, in the middle of the Caribbean and under a sky so packed with stars that it felt like being under the vault of a planetarium.

Do the stars shine brighter there?
Can you really walk on air?

As a 5th year islander, it’s fair to say that ‘I’ve been there before’, but without a doubt, String Theory on the beach was a show I will never forget.



Monday, 25 February 2019

BTTI 2019 Part I : Rocking All Night with Hanson



The first BTTI show always kicks off at 10:00 PM to allow enough time for those who fly in on the same day. I like late shows, but that night I was quite tired, after a day of sheltering from the rain under a gazebo. It had been raining relentlessly until early evening so my fingers had pruned up, and my hair was a frizzy mess. But it was a Rock All Night themed show, so I put on a black dress, tried to summon some energy from my soggy, pruned-up self and headed for the main beach.



Hanson opened the show with an acapella version of “Back to the Island”, followed by “Fired Up” , which, with its instantly recognisable guitar intro, is a somewhat predictable but very fitting start to a concert with a rockier slant. “I’ve Got Soul” - followed, as it usually does on most Hanson setlists. So far, so rock’n’roll, for Hanson’s standards, anyway: let’s face it, they’re not exactly heavy. Another recognisable guitar riff introduced the I’ll-be-damned-if-that’s-not-autobiographical “Heartbreaker” - a Taylor lead from the 2012’s EP “No Sleep for Banditos” and a song I always enjoy hearing live way more than on the recording, partly because of the guitar solo that gives Isaac an opportunity to show off. Next, it was Zac’s turn to sing lead next with “And I Waited” - another staple of Hanson’s rockier repertoire, although not a favourite of mine, followed by “You Never Know”.

Things took a surprising turn with “This Time Around”: the Hanson classic is part of the String Theory setlist, so I wasn’t expecting to hear it. Don’t get me wrong: I like that song a lot, but why use up a spot for something that would feature in tomorrow’s show? Afterwards, we were back to the Anthem-era with “Get The Girl Back” - a song whose only saving grace is that grapevine routine Taylor and Isaac often do onstage mid-song. When I heard “Thinking of You” next I thought, ‘please play something I actually want to hear?’.

Mercifully, the setlist gods listened to my prayers, and we got “Hand in Hand”, a classic Isaac lead that is also affectionately referred to by fans as “Segabuy”. My rating for a live performance of “Hand in Hand” is firmly based on the state of Isaac’s hair: if his usually slicked-back locks collapse on his face in a rebellious corkscrew curl, it’s a 10/10. Yes, I demand total hair destruction for “Segabuy”. Unfortunately, whatever hair spray Isaac used that night before he took to the stage was just too strong: the locks stayed put and as a result, my rating was a measly 7/10.


The Night the Hair Stayed Put

When “Look At You” followed, my suspicions were confirmed: that was a setlist aimed squarely at first timers. I have no hard data to prove it, but I get a feeling that a lot of new islanders are also new members, who got back into Hanson through the MOE album and tour of 2017 and who are mostly familiar with the old material. That’s my theory anyway: it makes sense, and I’m sticking to it.

“Great Divide” came to the rescue: it’s a song that always showcases Hanson at their very best, with its passionate message and uplifting vibe. I couldn’t say the same for ‘Hey’, whose inclusion in this particular setlist made zero sense to me. I found “Make it Out Alive” was another peculiar choice because none of the Shout it Out songs are very rock’n’roll (incidentally, I keep voting for SIO as a BTTI theme, with zero chances).



Another setlist spot was taken by a String Theory track - the thief in question being “Where’s the Love”. I was not impressed: surely even first timers would have been happy to hear the orchestral version of the same song on the following day? That’s when Hanson Logic defeats me. And yes, I did the finger dance anyway because there are times in every Hanson fan’s life when principles need to be put aside for the greater good, and that was one of such times.

But things weren’t getting any better for me with “Tearing it Down” and even less so with “Man from Milwaukee”: rock all night, what? I was relieved to hear “Lost Without Each Other” - one of my favourite tracks from Underneath - not exactly rock but it would do. “A Minute Without You” has a great guitar riff so it got a pass (and it’s an Isaac lead), only to be followed by “Voice in the Chorus” - another one from my Least Favourite Top 10. I was beginning to despair when I heard the opening chords of “The Ugly Truth” - finally we were rocking again. Then Hanson cranked it up few notches with “Rollercoaster Love”, a great choice, despite a couple of moments when Taylor didn’t look too certain about the lyrics. The show had just picked up when - alas - it was over. Or not quite, because, of course, Hanson had an encore for us: what better way to end a Rock All Night set  than with “In the City”? Do you love MAY? Hell yes.

There was no doubt that the first show of BTTI 2019 had ended on a high note, and I was grateful to the Universe and all the weather-connected gods that we’d had a show on the beach rather than in the dreaded “Greenhouse”. But it certainly wasn’t the best opening show I’d experienced in five years of BTTI, and not only due to song choices. There were some technical problems at the beginning, and I couldn’t hear Taylor’s voice at all during the first part of “Fired Up”, to the point that I’d wondered why he was letting fans sing in his place. It was an okay show, and if I’m being critical, it’s because, well, that’s the whole point of a review: you tell the truth, or at least, your truth. But trust me when I say that, despite the not-very-rock setlist, seeing a Hanson show on a Jamaican beach is still a pretty damn special experience, and that night, I wouldn’t have swapped that beach for anywhere else in the world.




Click here for Part III: Members Only
Click here for Part IV: The Solo Sets
Click here for Part V: An Executive Summary

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Ten Things to Know Before You Hit The Island






If you’re heading to Jamaica for the first time next week, you might be feeling a little apprehensive about this much-talked about Hanson event, which is now in its seventh year. So, as a semi-veteran (I have attended four BTTIs so far, 2015-18), I thought I’d share my Top 10 tips for a smooth and fun vacation at what some of us refer to as Hanson Summer Camp.

#1

Give yourself a chance to acclimatise to the Caribbean sun: wear plenty of sunscreen and take some breaks in the shade. Looking like a lobster for the rest of the event sucks, and looking like a lobster in your picture with the band sucks even more. Don’t forget that sunscreen even if the sky is overcast: last year I ended up with sunburn one side of my body just from sitting at the swim-up bar drinking shots to keep warm in the dreadful weather.

#2

It’s easy to get carried away when you first get to the all-inclusive but take it from me and pace yourself with the drinking: you don’t want to spend the evening semi-comatose in your room when everybody else is out socialising. And on no account ever drink two shots of neat gin battery acid at a Jamaican resort, even if it was brought to you by a friend to celebrate some great news you’d just received* (I’m looking at you, Kaitlin).

Go easy on the beverages
#3

Be chill (1). If you want to camp out from the crack of dawn to get a front row spot, by all means, camp out, but leave the Regular Hanson Show Combat Mode at home: the Island is not the place for line drama, hand numbers and scowling at other fans if they’re getting half an inch closer.

#4

Be chill (2). Stampeding towards the guys the moment they appear on the horizon will only make them want to leg it as fast as possible. Act normal and they might actually stop and chat to you. [I know that this will fall on deaf ears, but I had to say it anyway].

Talking to Zac in 2016

#5

Be prepared for unwelcome changes to your digestive system. All those sugary cocktails can play havoc with your gut and you might find yourself using the bathroom too much - or not enough. Pack some Imodium and a few sachets of Fybogel just in case. You don’t want to get to Pictures day looking like you’ve swallowed a watermelon - and yes, I speak from experience - I learnt my lesson in 2015.

#6

Roll with it. Plans go awry on the Island - nothing quite goes the way expect it, for some reason, so just go with the flow and take the opportunity to meet new people, go to dinner with someone you don’t know very well, talk to staff, explore the resort. Sitting on the sand for hours on end to preserve your spot is not going to be the kind of memory you’ll cherish for months on end when you get home. Again, I speak from experience: I missed out on the banquet under the stars in 2016 to save my spot and no, it wasn’t worth it.



#7

Decide on a ‘go-to’ drink that can be made quickly so that you won’t have to wait for ages for a Piña Colada as the show is about to start. Mine is Appleton and Coke, and ordering it with a dollar bill in your hand gets you swift service from the overworked bartender who will spot the golden combination of an easily made drink + tip.

#8
Due to an unknown universal law, Pictures Day at BTTI will always fall on the sunniest, hottest day of the entire event, even if you had monsoon weather until the day before. Therefore, dress accordingly and bring a hat for when you’re lining up in the sun. If you’re planning to wear Spanx under your dress, you have been warned. On the plus side, shapewear will make you sweat so much that afterwards you’ll feel like you’ve just had one of those slimming body wraps.

#9
If there’s a song you’d really like to hear and you get a chance to speak to one of the guys, do ask them if they could play it: they may well accommodate your request. (However, yelling your request during a set is mightily annoying).


#10
Share the love: tip the staff, but have a chat with them too. Find out about someone’s life, make a connection. Over the years, I’ve had some great conversations with the bartenders at the swim-up bars, Sophia, the beauty therapist at the spa, Uriah, the groundskeeper I saw every morning on my way to breakfast as he tended to the gardens. I’ll never forget chatting with our waiter Rogelio at the buffet in Cancun, despite the fact that he didn’t speak English and my understanding of Spanish is non-existent. On the last day, we hugged and took photos together. I looked like crap, so I won’t post it, but that brief connection with someone from a different part of the world, with a very different life to mine, will be something I’ll never forget.

These are just my top ten tips but everybody has their own - everybody experiences BTTI differently and there is no right or wrong way to do it: it’s your vacation. Just remember why we are all there: to hear some great music under the stars, in the company of friends and people from all over the world. If you’re like me, those memories will keep you going for the rest of the year and when you’re back on the daily grind, looking at those BTTI pictures on your commute to work will be guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

So go and pack that bag now, hit that Bob Marley playlist and get ready for an unforgettable time in crazy, beautiful Jamaica.


Back to the Island is an event hosted for Hanson by Island Gigs

Monday, 21 January 2019

What is String Theory? Flipping the record for Side 2





Reaching for the Sky Pt.2

The story continues:
As the boy grew to a man
He built tall ladders to ascend
And those around him said with spite
Risk of failure isn't worth the fight.

[Full lyrics on Hansonstage]

The song picks up from where Part 1 left off and tells us more about the boy, who is now striving against difficulties and fighting against all odds.

This Time Around

The general consensus is that the vocals were re-recorded for TTA - possibly due to the publishing rights still being owned by Def Jam. Isaac, in particular, sounds very much as ‘current’ Isaac as he belts out his verse.

But vocals aside, I keep forgetting that there’s an orchestra playing - it’s very subtle in the intro and my brain just tunes out all the new stuff and fixates on the familiar: i.e. a track I’ve listened to a million times. As the orchestra kicks in properly halfway through, so does the horns section, and it sounds like everything was thrown in indiscriminately, favouring noise over subtlety. All that is missing is a chorus line and pyrotechnics.

Something Going Round

This revisiting of a fan favourite from The Walk album is introduced by some seriously dramatic sounding strings which set the tone for the rest of the song. Although the vocals are clearly from the existing recording, SGR is one of the few tracks in the album that sounds different enough for my mind not to instantly default to the original version.

Battle Cry

Ahhh, Battle Cry….where to start? Thanks to my self-imposed String Theory embargo, I didn’t know anything about this song, so I went in with an unbiased mind, noticing, before anything else, that the guitar intro is totally ‘old school’ U2  - think Unforgettable Fire-era U2. Then the singing starts and…. what's going on? I can usually tell what brother is singing but this time the similarities between the two younger Hanson's voices is uncanny and for the first time in years I got Zac and Taylor mixed up, at least right up until around 0:33 In my defence, I think that’s also because in recent years, Zac seems to be favouring singing in a high key and falsetto over his deep, rich natural singing timbre - which he uses in this song.

At around the point at which Zac starts to sound like Zac, Battle Cry really starts to sound like something familiar, until the the chorus erupts and it all becomes clear: this is golden era, first-three-albums-era Killers, complete with Brandon Flowers-style histrionics, rousing chorus, insistent drums and sweeping strings. Possibly because of its distinctive retro sound, this song was love at first play for me - until I found out that it’s not a new song at all. It turns out that Battle Cry is a product Fools Banquet 2010, and was co-written by Zac and Carrick Moore Gerety, and later published by Carrick’s then band, Everybody Else.

I can’t pretend not to be at least a little disappointed that the best song in the album is not new material. Of course, that doesn't diminish the quality of the song itself, but I was all set for proclaiming to the world ‘See? See? Hanson can still write great songs’ - until I found out that it had been written 8 years ago, way before Anthem, the band’s last proper studio album, was released.

However, Battle Cry suits the orchestral treatment so well that it could almost pass as having been written specifically for this project. And Zac’s voice is a return to form: clean, powerful, free of all the ironic nods and winks of glam rock/Darkness influence of recent years. Especially when it comes to Hanson, earnestness always wins over knowing irony.

(If you fancy checking out the original - here it is. Carrick’s voice can’t compete with Zac Hanson’s but it’s a pretty good version nonetheless).



You Can’t Stop Us

An intro precedes the opening guitar of this Anthem-era track, followed by string arrangements that underscore the drums throughout the rest of the song. It just doesn’t work: the orchestra treatment really doesn’t suit this We Will Rock You homage - maybe it’s the annoying horns at 1:08, or the string intermission before the bridge at 1:49, which doesn’t add anything but succeeds in diluting the kickass vibe of the song.

Broken Angel

I had such high hopes for this song, which I never cared much for until Hanson started to perform it regularly in 2015 and suddenly, with Zac’s adult voice, it took a whole new dimension. And that’s where the problem lies for me, because, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, Hanson have kept the old vocals from Underneath, which would have been recorded when Zac was about 18. Of course he had a good voice back then - for an 18 year old boy. Now he’s a grown man and his voice has so much more depth and richness and arguably the strongest pair of lungs of the three. So why did Zac not re-record the vocals?

Vocals aside, the orchestra doesn’t really seem to add much to the song - I expected more for a song that maybe most of all should have encapsulated the spirit of String Theory - the boy flying too high to reach for the sky.

Ultimately, Broken Angel is a missed opportunity of criminally huge proportions, and every time I listen to it I feel a wave of frustration for what it could have been and isn’t. And sadly, it sums up my feelings on the whole album, but for that you’ll have to wait for the conclusion - I’ll see you at the finale.

What Are We Fighting For

This little known song, from the 2015 Inside the Box Members EP, is an interesting inclusion to the album, but considering the theme, I can see how it fits. While I’d found the arrangements on the original version disappointing compared to the raw, ‘in progress’ demo from the ‘making of’ stream, I think the orchestral treatment actually improves this version. It’s one of those ‘good to hear as part of something else’ types of songs; it doesn’t really go anywhere, it doesn’t strike any particular chords but at the same time, it’s part of the journey - like the sound of the windscreen wipers on a long car ride on a rainy day.

Breaktown

You know when I said that ‘Broken Angel’ was a missed opportunity of criminally huge proportions? Actually, I was lying. That award goes to “Breaktown” - a song fans have been begging Hanson to release in an official version for years. We were treated to an incredibly live performance of it at BTTI 2017, and it was stunning. But once again, just like with Broken Angel, Hanson have recycled the old vocals from the demo that was part of the audio CD that came with the SETB documentary. It’s a crying shame, and one more reason to see this project in its live form.

[The clip below shows how Taylor sings it these days. Video credit to Emily Fuller].



No Rest For The Weary

One of the best songs from Loud, NRFTW has always stood out for Taylor’s great vocals and singalong chorus. But there is nothing in this version that particularly stands out to me, and the added orchestral sections feel tacked-on, replicating the existing tune without adding anything spectacularly different.

I Was Born

I like the first part of this version of the 2017 single a lot - until the chorus starts: then, whatever the orchestra is doing is actually weirdly grating. I wish I had a sufficient command of musical terminology to articulate what the orchestration of the chorus sounds to me - but in a nutshell, it sounds to me as if a deranged monkey with cymbals is going TA-DA! every few seconds. Know what I mean?

TA-DA!!!


Sound of Light

My least favourite song from the Sound of Light EP doesn’t sound radically different in this version and I am barely noticing the orchestra. I can't find anything else to say other than the EP version is far superior.

Tonight

The elusive ‘Tonight’ - one of Hanson’s most emblematic songs of recent times, and yet one that they hardly ever perform, thus belonging to the category of ‘Hanson Mysteries’. Much like the song that precedes it, the orchestra doesn’t add much to this new version - just a little bit of background strings here and there. Have I already used the phrase ‘missed opportunity’ at all in this review?

The Verdict




As I am finally getting round to posting this second part of my review, String Theory is already been out for three months and my impression is that it has left a lot of fans underwhelmed.

The problems start with the so called ‘storyline’: a boy striving for more, getting knocked down, finding himself on the brink of despair and finally rising again. It’s an uplifting story, for sure, but one that we have heard before in the Strong Enough to Break documentary and that is a big theme in Underneath. Although Hanson will not admit that the story is autobiographical,  it clearly is, and leads to the question, how many times can they get away with recycling this ‘Hanson against all odds’ narrative?

But if I could get past the predictable concept, what has been harder to swallow is the re-hashing of old vocals, which, in the case of Broken Angel and Breaktown actually misrepresent the band. To a casual listener, Zac sounds like a teenager, and Taylor like an angst-ridden 20-something with a nose cold. Why could Hanson not re-record those songs? How difficult would it be to organise it, especially as Hanson own their own studio?

Finally, the orchestra. I listen to classical music and although I am certainly no expert in the subject, to me a lot of the orchestral arrangements in this album sound very obvious, as if someone had just played around with the main tune and added instruments with Garage Band. Maybe David Campbell had used up all his better ideas on his last project?

Adding to the overall sense of disappointment was learning that the orchestral parts weren’t recorded live, ‘off the floor’, when a local orchestra would have been the obvious choice. The only possible explanations for this are cost and time, and I can’t help coming to the conclusion that cost and time have been determining factors in how the entire project eventually turned out. String Theory could have been terrific, but instead of going all the way and doing it properly, with new vocals and a more creative treatment of the songs, Hanson chose to make a sort of musical Frankenstein, tacking new onto old and hoping for the best.

Hence, as an album, String Theory is rather underwhelming: it should be reaching for the sky, but instead it stops halfway up the ladder and has a cup of tea.

I wanted to really love this album but all I can say is that it’s okay. Luckily, I will soon get a chance to see the live version on stage and I have no doubt that it will be an amazing experience, with the band performing alongside a real orchestra, bringing the songs to life with their adult voices - the way it should have been. Roll on, February.

String Theory is available from Hanson.net as well as all the main digital stores and streaming outlets. All details of the forthcoming European shows and tickets information also on Hanson.net



Saturday, 15 December 2018

What is String Theory? A close listen to Hanson’s orchestral album - Side 1



It was early 2018 when Hanson began to share cryptic messages asking ‘What is String Theory?’ through their official Twitter account. But the rumour of an orchestra project had been floating around a for a while - I had first heard about in Tulsa at Hanson Day 2017, when the band had dropped the information in front of a couple of fans with the calculated timing of a Soviet-style, well-oiled propaganda machine. It was clear that Hanson were preparing their fans for The Next Thing.

String Theory is now here, in the form of a double album and an orchestral tour that has taken Hanson to several North American cities and that will reach Europe and Australia in early 2019. I haven’t been to a String Theory show yet, and prior to the album release, I had tried not to listen to too many clips from the US tour, so as not to totally spoil my enjoyment for the tour and to let the album’s new orchestral arrangements surprise me. Now that I’ve had this double album on heavy rotation for a few weeks, I feel that I can at least express my judgement on the recorded project.

These are the opinions of a self-confessed music geek: if you are the kind of fan who will unquestioningly praise anything the band does, look away now. Music nerds, follow me: it’s time to geek out.

A Short Note on the Story

String Theory, as the 2018 Playbill explains, tells the story of a boy who ‘was never satisfied with seeing the stars through a spyglass’. In part one, Reaching for the Sky, ‘with each rung he climbs up the ladder of life he is faced with unforeseen challenges, tragedy, betrayal and the loss of innocence’. In part two, Battle Cry, ‘the boy returns to hope, and celebrates the obstacles within each extraordinary journey as a necessary part of seeking his purpose’.

Hanson chose songs to ‘fit’ these storyline and you can read Robyn Kessler’s excellent analysis of how each song tells a bit of the story on his guest post to this blog.

Side One

Reaching for the Sky

The album’s opening song introduces the boy, the protagonist of String Theory.

There’s a boy I used to know

He was always searching high and low

(Read the full lyrics on Hansonstage)

I am torn. RFTS is undeniably a good song, with a delicate, almost lullaby-like melody. It certainly sounds as if it was written with an orchestra in mind, with the strings arrangements beautifully complementing Taylor’s voice. It’s been a while since we’ve had this kind of vocal performance from him and this song showcases his voice at its best, with perfectly measured emotion and that a little bit of grit that keeps the delivery firmly on the right side of soul with only a small nod to Broadway.

The lyrics are what let this song down: they are not very original or particularly imaginative, and neither is the whole story around which ST is built. That’s one of my issues with String Theory as a project, but I'm afraid you’ll have to wait until my conclusions at the end of Part 2 to know more.

Joyful Noise

The String Theory version of Joyful Noise is, like many other songs in this album, structured around the original recording, with the orchestra arrangements added to the track featured in the 2016 Play EP.

I’ve always found that the production on the original track lacked something, so I find that the extra orchestral arrangements overall add to the song. I am also pretty sure that there’s been some serious tinkering at the mixing desk because if you listen closely, the audience singing now sounds different. This is especially evident during the ‘dance all night/find your courage’ bit: the new version sounds like a more even balance of male and female voices, and Hanson’s own voices, singing along with the ‘choir’ can be made out. And I am sure, absolutely positive that I can hear Isaac singing along to that chorus now.

Whatever they did, it was a wise decision that portrays the band as having a healthy mix of male and female fans - a subtle, deliberate gesture to change the generally perception of Hanson as teenyboppers’ idols for screaming girls.

Where’s the Love

Like all the songs from the Middle of Nowhere era, which would have presented a 2018 listener with baby Hanson voices, Where’s The Love has been re-recorded, with a great a capella intro and new arrangements make a regular staple of Hanson live shows sound a little fresher and new.

Dream It Do It

(Lyrics on Hansonstage) 

Dream It Do It is one of three three new, or better, unreleased by Hanson songs on the album.

Seamlessly following on from Where’s the Love by means of a very Broadway sounding orchestral intro, this is a song with a ‘big’, epic sweeping sound, and falls into the category of one of those uplifting tracks Hanson do so well. Lyrics-wise, dare I say it’s more of the same -

“If you can dream it/You can do it”

I have two observations to make on the subject: one, this is not a song for underachievers and two, I fear that it’s only a matter of time before Hanson fans start tattooing Dream It Do It on their already catchphrase-covered bodies. And I bet Hanson know that.

Mmmbop

I’m going to come out and say it: Mmmbop is one of the best songs in the whole album. The orchestra arrangements, especially after the first minute and a half, bring a new dimension to it, with the strings underscoring the chorus with an insistent but contrasting theme that seems to have divided fans, as half of my friends love it and the remaining half hate it.

I guess for me, though, what makes String Theory Mmmbop a winner are the newly recorded vocals,  as I am not a fan from 1997 (according to the Geneva Conventions that is a crime), and I don’t particularly enjoy the baby Hanson voices, so this is a win-win.

Chasing Down My Dreams

This rarely played live, relatively unknown song from the 2012 EP No Sleep for Banditos certainly fits, theme-wise, in the String Theory narrative, given its title and its lyrics. But Zac’s vocals were never great on that recording, which came after a series of all night writing sessions. Zac has three leads in the EP and his voice is noticeably strained in all of them, which is fine for a fanclub experiment in nocturnal creativity, but not ideal for a project of such grandiose ambitions. Considering that Zac has arguably the strongest voice of the three, reusing the 2012 recording does nothing to show his singing talent, and for all the added bells and whistles, the String treatment of Chasing Down My Dreams amounts to little more than window-dressing.

Tragic Symphony

Despite being the most aptly titled track in the album, Tragic Symphony doesn’t sound very different after the String Theory treatment. Once again, the existing vocals from the original recording have been used, and my brain tunes into the familiar, tuning out the orchestra entirely.

Got a Hold On Me

Although the vocals sound like the original recording from 2007, I do like the new arrangements, especially towards the middle of the track, when the strings come in and bring a sense of dramatic urgency that really adds to the song. Also, is it me or is there a kind of John Barry/James Bond vibe that kind of turns into bossa nova right at the end? No? Well, any excuse for a Martini is fine by me, so pass me the olives and press play for the next song.

Yearbook

Another song from Hanson’s early days, Yearbook benefits from newly recorded vocals, and that means that, even if the original has never been a favourite of mine, at least now I get to enjoy a version that doesn’t have baby Hanson voices. I can’t say the same for the orchestral arrangements, which disappear in the background without adding anything particularly different to what we know already. However, I have a feeling that Yearbook will sound terrific as a live performance - so I'm making a mental note to listen out for that in February.

Siren Call

Another deep cut from a Members EP, Siren Call practically screamed for orchestral arrangements. Instead of the electronic sampling found on the original, this haunting melody is underscored by some of the most interesting string accompaniment in the record so far. Also, and at the risk of incurring in the wrath of the Zac girls, I always found that Zac’s vocals were too loud and piercing in the original. Now the orchestra brings balance to the vocals, and the end result is a bigger, richer, more luscious sound that perfectly encapsulates that sense of being lured into something dangerous and beautiful while you’re finding yourself hopelessly adrift on stormy waters. 

I never thought I’d catch myself saying this but hell yeah: Siren Call is possibly the best song in this album.

The Sirens and Ulysses by William Etty

Me Myself and I

This version of the Shout it Out song contains a very pleasant surprise as Isaac (who has no leads in the album) sings the second verse, appeasing the Isaac Fans just in time to avoid a villagers-with-pitchforks type of situation. Although Zac also sings a verse, you can’t really hear his voice that much because of the layers of harmonies. And that’s an issue with the song in general because the harmonies steal the show, and you forget all about the orchestra that is playing somewhere in the background.

WE WANT ISAAC! WE WANT ISAAC!

Stay tuned for Part 2 


Monday, 3 December 2018

Guest Post: The Meaning of String Theory: a song-by-song analysis by Robyn Kessler

This post was originally posted on the Hanson.net forum by Robyn under his screen name @robinbond. When I asked Robyn if I could link to the post on my review of the album, he pointed out that the post was on the Members Only side, which would have been inaccessible for non-members. So we decided to repost Robyn's analysis on my blog as a guest post where everybody will be able to read his insightful, detailed analysis. Thanks, Robyn, for letting me share it!

There's a boy I used to know - Reaching For The Sky (AMBITION SEARCHING FOR ONE’S PLACE IN THE WORLD)

If I could turn the world to a melody I think so many troubles would cease to be - Joyful Noise (MOTIVATION)

Look at what you're doing. Where's the love? It's not enough; it makes the world go round - Where's The Love

(ACKNOWLEDGMENT

This is the line drawn in the sand that turns a boy into a man - Dream It Do It (PROCLAMATION)

It's gone so fast... In a MMMBop it's gone - MMMBop (USE THIS MOMENT or else it's gone... compare with message of Tonight)

Now that I've started there's nothing standing in my way - Chasing Down My Dreams (DETERMINATION)

I'm caught up in a dark emotion; I'm giving you all that's left of me - Tragic Symphony (DESPAIR / FEELING SPENT)

I should have gotten out when I thought I could - Got A Hold On Me (QUESTIONING CONTINUING)

YEARBOOK is the song that the whole show hangs on... which is (I think) why Hanson said that this show answers a question they've been asking for a long time... actually, everyone has been asking Where did Johnny go? -- if we take Johnny as a personification of the hopes and dreams we had of who we would become, the song's place in the show makes sense. Considering  the lines selected. Yearbook is actually a framework for the whole String Theory story. The lyric in the song “sometimes I think I hear him calling out my name; sometimes I wonder maybe we’re to blame” speaks to the fact that only we can take responsibility for the person we became. That said…

Where did Johnny go? – Yearbook (SEARCH FOR IDENTITY / OUR PLACE IN THIS WORLD )

No straighter path than to struggle, ‘cause when we rest we fear and it draws them near - Siren Call

(ENCOUNTERING OBSTACLES)

When I'm alone in a cold dark room, there's still someone that I can tell my troubles to - Me Myself And I (FINDING HOPE)

Those around him said with spite "risk of failure isn't worth the fight - Reaching For The Sky Part 2  (ENCOUNTERING PEER PRESSURE)

I heard them say that dreams should stay in your head ... I started feeling like I don't want to fight... and we won't go down  - This Time Around (OVERCOMING NEGATIVITY)

Only you know what you lost - Something Going Round (IDENTIFYING THE ROAD TO RECOVERY)

Tomorrow the march will begin again; Every time you fall face-down in the dirt, I never knew before - don't be afraid “ - Battle Cry (PERSEVERENCE)

You're in for a big surprise - you can't stop us now - You Can't Stop Us (COMMITMENT)

A high-flyer's what I want to be... I'm gonna run away and learn to fly like you... you can't bring me down… what

am I supposed to be? - Broken Angel (SETTING GOALS)

We dreamt a dream, then lost our way, in the dark of night, at the break of day; How did we go wrong? Where

do we belong? - What Are We Fighting For? (REFLECTION)

I've been losing for so long I can't begin... you're so insecure, you're hurt right down to the core - you're only

stuck in your pain – Break Town (ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF CONTEXT)

Yesterday was just fine but the future's all I've got time for... my feet can't move to where my heart just ain't - No

Rest For The Weary (FOCUS)

I was born to be someone no-one's ever been before - I Was Born (HAVING A UNIQUE VISION)

Always had a taste for another thrill; when I hit a wall and I'm put to the test - Sound Of Light (PUTTING

VISION INTO PRACTISE)

Don't care what has come before; tomorrow's an open door; Don't wait for tomorrow, cos it just might be tonight – Tonight (CARRYING THE VISION FORWARD INTO FULFILLMENT)


Robyn Kessler is the admin of Hanson South Africa and a great supporter of the Take The Walk campaign. Check out his Facebook Page and his Twitter account.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Animal Instincts - a song-by-song review of Hanson's 2018 Members EP


Are you ready? Let's start.












Working

When I first heard the preview clip that was posted on HNET, I wasn’t too impressed. It sounded an awful lot like Til New Year’s Night - one of Isaac’s leads on the Finally, It’s Christmas album: a Chuck Berry-style rock’n’roll song with a ‘50s vibe and easy rhymes. Fun, but not particularly memorable.

Hearing the full song, however, changed my mind. Blame the intro, with its infectious guitar riff and catchy handclaps: it’s impossible to sit still while you listen to it, even if it’s only for some subtle Isaac-style pigeon-neck moves. Or blame Carlos Sosa’s saxophone: this is one of those rare exceptions when I actually welcome a horns part. And what to say about ‘that’ guitar solo, which, according to the liner notes, was provided by none other than J.D. McPherson? Did he owe Hanson a favour for bailing on BTTI 2017? Who knows, and I would have liked to be able to say that Working featured Isaac’s best guitar solo to date, but maybe that’s still to come.

Unsurprisingly, the lyrics are this song’s weak point: like in the case of Till New Year's Night, you get a feeling that Isaac wasn’t going for deep and meaningful here:

Six am rolling out of bed
Putting on my pants, fixing my hair

I’m sure we can all imagine Isaac fixing his hair at six in the morning (#OldManPriorities), but what about the rest?

Talking to my boss about my check
‘Cause my payroll’s so small gives me a crick in the neck


Blue Collar Hanson?

Working is an act of rebellion to blue collar life, but Isaac Hanson is not exactly Springsteen and I can’t quite buy the idea of a Hanson brother clocking into factory job and complaining about his wages - and no, negotiating a severance deal from Def Jam doesn’t quite count as working class life experience. But this is classic rock’n’roll after all, and this kind of song is more about style than content. Besides, Isaac’s vocals are absolutely on point, so I think I can give him a pass. Is this going to be my favourite Isaac lead of all time? No. But play it again, Sam.

Skip or Play? Play!

Goldminer

I may not be, technically, a ‘Zac girl’, but some of my favourite Hanson songs of all time are also Zac leads: Fire on the Mountain, The Walk, I Am. But I do find that a lot of Zac leads sound quite similar, especially in recent years: Juliet, Get So Low, and most recently Ghost Writer, these songs all seem to follow the same template, all underscored by that kind of Beatles-esque, almost percussive piano style. Unfortunately, Goldminer also falls into that category and is so similar to last year’s Ghost Writer that I keep mixing the titles in my head - as they both start with the letter ‘G’.

What do you mean this sounds like "Ghost Writer"?

The lyrics, as you may have guessed, are about a woman who is after men’s money:

She’s on the prowl, looking for money
She’s a gold miner
Stealing your cents
Robbing you blind
Open your eyes, this girl’s nothing but trouble.

I won’t launch into an in-depth, feminist-centred tirade, mostly because I think that laziness, rather than misogyny, is the driving force behind these lyrics. Goldminer leaves me indifferent, and I expect more from Zac Hanson: without going as far back as his most inspired, Walk-era output, even last year’s Ghost Writer was better than this.

Skip or Play? Skip.

Young and Dumb

What does this ethereal, drum sequencing led, synth-heavy intro remind you of? Cast your mind back to 2015’s Inside the Box members EP and to its best song, the achingly beautiful Isaac lead Grace Unknown. Yes? Can you hear the resemblance? Good, let’s keep going. Zac’s drums kick in about 30 seconds into the song, a slow, dull beat that gradually builds up into a crescendo that gives the song a sort of big ‘80s sound, of the kind that almost screams for a music video and a giant fan pointed at Zac’s hair.

As this is a Taylor lead, unsurprisingly the lyrics have “Taylor” written all over them:

I pursued happiness
A tapestry of fluorescent bliss
But I’m dying on the vine

(*Nerd Alert: in the liner notes, 'fluorescent'  is incorrectly spelt as ‘florescent’- a quick look at the dictionary confirms that even in US English there should be a ‘u’. 'Florescent' is a totally different word.)

Don’t recognize the view from here
A poor reflection in the rearview mirror

Aside from the way Taylor says ‘mirror’ as ‘me-yah’, which is a prime example of Hanson’s quirky enunciation, these are lyrics you can geek out to - vague enough to appeal to a wide range of listeners, but personal enough to let you believe you might be getting some insight how Taylor really feels.

Like Isaac in Working, in Young and Dumb Taylor, too, shows a fascination with low paid jobs; it is, however, true that poverty and struggle have been romanticised in literature, poetry and the folk tradition since the beginning of time.

I tried living in the ivory tower
Held down three jobs at ten an hour
Just to get into the door

However, there are a couple of lines that could come from Taylor’s personal experience:

Been a hero and a deadbeat
A pencil pusher and a piece of meat

Whether they’re based on life experience or purely fictional, these are good lyrics - the kind that you want to dissect, speculate and interpret to your heart’s content. Then, the bridge comes at 2:35 and it’s pretty epic:

It’s hard enough
To know it’s not enough to know better
If these aching bones
and these jagged stones go together

Can you hear the Phil Collins-era Genesis? Hanson have given them a nod before, when they covered Invisible Touch during a Livestream in November 2014. That bridge is a perfect amalgamation of Genesis and Phil Collins’ ‘80s solo work, and on top of that, it features some killer Hanson harmonies. I also love how, in the chorus, 'young' rises and 'dumb' falls, perfectly conveying the song's sense of disillusionment, of youth slipping away.

Like Grace Unknown, Young and Dumb is a song with a ‘big sound’ and a chorus that soars; Taylor’s voice is great when he sticks to his mid-range, as he did in No Rest for the Weary from 2016's Loud EP. The lyrics are imaginative and inspired, with the small, notable exception of a couplet at the end:

Ashes to ashes
We’ll all end up in a casket

Maybe if the EP recording process didn’t happen in the space of a week, those two lines would have been dragged into the trash basket, or filed in the outtakes folder with other material that sounded great at 2:00 AM in a sleep-deprived hallucinatory state. Where the first line soars with its biblical tone, rhyming it with 'casket' in the second line slams it back down to the ground, and any sense of poetry is lost to a word coming straight out of a funeral director's catalogue. ('Grave' would have been a better choice of words, but of course, it didn't rhyme).

I bagged the best song of the EP!

As usual, I’m nit-picking: Young and Dumb is, without a doubt, one of the best songs Hanson have recorded since Sound of Light and one that showcases Taylor’s voice at its best.

Play or Skip? Play.

Bad for Me

First of all, let’s all consider this: Animal Instincts features two Isaac leads. Two. This, alone, is a reason to celebrate. There have been EPs with no Isaac lead at all, and EPs with Isaac leads that didn’t sound much like Isaac leads, like What’s Your Name from Music Made for Humans. In terms of Isaac-awesomeness, this year’s EP brings us a bumper crop.

With this premise in mind, I think it’s fair to say that Bad for Me doesn't stray too far from familiar territory: it’s a mid-tempo ballad, with typical ‘tortured Isaac’ lyrics, very much along the lines of Live for Me and Being Me (interestingly, all three songs have 'me' in the title). The vocals are soft at first, almost whispered; so you’re almost unprepared for the rush of emotion that comes at 1:40, when Isaac cranks it up a few notches and belts it out, his voice almost cracking, the way it does when Isaac sings like he means it. That’s the kind of Isaac lead I want to hear, and even if I don’t care much for love songs, I could hear Isaac sing a recipe book in this way and I'd be happy.

Play or Skip? Do you even have to ask?

Sophia

If Isaac fans are in total shock over this year's two leads, Zac fans are by now used to getting multiple offerings from Little Drummer Boy. If I were Taylor, I’d start to worry. But I digress: let’s talk about Sophia:

- Standard fare of piano-as-percussion: check
- Beatles-esque melodies: check
- A woman’s name as the title: check
- Lyrics about a quirky, whimsical, ‘free spirit’ female character: check.

This is all beginning to sound like Zac-Hanson-by-numbers and I can’t help thinking, ‘come on Zac, you know you can do better than this’. I hope that this only a phase, possibly a consequence of all the time and effort the band has been putting into the String Theory project. With the yearly EP happening regardless of other commitments, Hanson have to come up with five songs, whether their creative juices are depleted or not. It’s the trade-off for their ‘contract’ with us fans and one that I will still take over getting no new music at all.

With its simple piano chords and catchy chorus, Sophia will keep playing in your head long after you’ve hit the ‘stop’ button, and soon you'll be blasting Slayer to cleanse your hearing, all to no avail, because after one single spin, SOPHIIIIIIAAAAAA will have wormed its way into your brain and only horse sedatives will put you out of your misery and make it stop.

Play or Skip? Skip, or be ready to face the inevitable consequences.




The Final Verdict

There’s a lot that I don’t love about Animal Instincts, starting with its title, which isn’t very imaginative and bears no connection to any of the EP's five songs. As for the artwork, I don't understand it: is it supposed to be a kind of ‘so bad it’s good’ literal interpretation of, well, animal instincts? Is it supposed to appeal to dog loving fans*? Or are Hanson testing the market to see what they can get away with? After the “Fanson for Life” merch, everything is possible, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a range of Hanson-branded pet merch appeared in the store at some point in the near future (believe it or not, people have been asking for it on the forum).

[*Confession: I am not a fan of dogs, with the exception of the two pictured below]

Baxter, (left) and Penny (right). Credit to Jodie.

In all honesty, I had low expectations for this EP for several reasons, not least because this year Hanson had been keeping very quiet about the whole writing and recording process, with no weekly ‘making of’ streams*, which lead me to suspect that maybe the band had reservations about the quality of the songs. As it turned out, things had just got too hectic at Hanson HQ before the EP’s official release and the 'Making of' Animal Instinct streams are now happening, starting on Friday 8 June. There will be a total of 5 streams, one each Friday through 6 July and looping throughout each weekend. So if you haven't renewed your membership yet, now's the time.

Ultimately, what matters is the music, and this year’s EP contains, at least for me, more hits than misses, owing it in part to the two, did I mention two, Isaac leads and a really strong Taylor lead which is already showing early signs of becoming a fan favourite. Sadly, both Zac leads are this EP’s weakest links for me, so I’ll keep listening to his best work and hope that any future songwriting will be more inspired.



Animal Instincts is not going to replace Sound of Light as my favourite Hanson Members EP of all time, but neither is it going to take the bottom place in the list (that belongs to Music Made for Humans). What is certain is that the 2018 Members EP will go down in Hanson history as The One With Two Isaac Leads. If that’s a sign of things to come, suddenly the future is looking bright in Hansonland.

It's about dogs, apparently


Animal Instinct is included as part of the 2018 Fan Club membership. Join today at Hanson.net