Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Play or Skip? A very personal review of Hanson's new EP

The Cover of Play - credit to HNET

a.k.a. "The One Whose Title Is Perilously Close to Another Song’s"

This is a Zac song, and Zac songs always seem to attract rave reviews. I get it - he’s got the hair, the moves, he hits all the high notes. Only last year Hanson recorded a cover of the Darkness’ I Believe in a Thing Called Love for the Roots & Rock'n'Roll EP and although I’ve never been a fan of that song, I have to admit that Zac nailed the challenging vocals, gaining the approval of none other than Justin Hawkins himself.

DYBIL is half Darkness, half Queen. It doesn’t accurately represent Hanson as a songwriting band but it speaks miles of their fun, devil-may-care attitude: (Hey you guys, this year we want to channel our inner glam-rock gods! Sorry if it’s not your thing!). It’s also a pretty good fun to hear live, and watching Zac drum at break-neck speed and sing at the same time is a show within the show.

I thought this song would be a ‘skip’ for me but since it was pre-released it has grown on me. It will never be a favourite but to paraphrase a friend, I won’t have to get out of the shower to skip it.

Play or Skip? Mostly play.

a.k.a. “Not The Chic Song”

As some of you already know, Isaac is my favourite Hanson (yes, we all have a favourite and those claim not to, are either lying or confused. I suggest some serious soul-searching).
As every fan knows, Isaac leads are few and far between - one per album or EP, if you’re lucky. Because of their scarcity, and the demand that this causes, I am convinced that the band use Isaac leads as bargaining chips, a carrot to dangle in front of us to make us give them more money even more money. They like to watch us squirm. Why would they otherwise leave Grace Unknown out of the making of Inside the Box, causing widespread panic in the fanbase? And why didn't they play this one in Tulsa? I'm telling you: they like to keep us hanging.

I first heard Freak Out from the short preview clip that posted in the store. It didn't sound my kind of thing. Later on, the ‘Making of’ stream half-confirmed my fears, and yet, I still tried to keep an open mind. But now, with the finished product playing through the speakers, I feel like weeping into my For Your Love t-shirt.

My first problem with this song starts with the fact that it’s titled like a very famous song with a chorus that says ’Freak out!’. Admittedly, that’s where the similarities stop, but I can’t listen to Isaac say Freak Out without automatically adding “Le Freak, c'est Chic” in my head. What is it with Hanson writing song titles that sound a lot like other (more famous) songs? (Answers on a tweet to @asphodelia).

Anyway. The opening is promising enough, with a badass groove that could potentially turn into a decent rock song, but instead, the chorus leads into some kind of predictable hash of anything you’ve heard before with a heavy 80’s influence - a kind of Robert Palmer-lite, although friends have also heard echoes of Huey Lewis and Roxette respectively.

When it comes to the lyrics, I find it hard to be impressed by yet another song about letting loose at the weekend, especially when the people who wrote it are not exactly Springsteen-style blue-collar characters in need to blow off some steam after a hard week at the steel factory.

Take off that ball and chain
Turn off your weekday brain
Let me hear you sing
Let me hear you scream
Freak out

If there’s one positive thing I can say about this song, is that I’m almost certain that it will sound great live. The Old Man will strut his stuff (hopefully it won’t make my evening rough) and we’ll all freak out and everything will be just dandy. Therefore, if in just under three months’ time from now you spot me in a BTTI video freaking out to Freak Out, please remember the disclaimer you’ve just read.

Play or Skip? Skip.

a.k.a "You Can’t Stop Us Reprise"

Taylor is getting all the best leads lately - something that drove me to switching teams for a good 15 minutes in the last 24 hours (in the end, I had to give in: I will always side with the underdog, i.e. Isaac). But seriously, can you blame me? From the opening guitar riff, you know that this is going to be a crowd pleaser: vaguely rebellious lyrics, Taylor in fight mode, and an infectious ‘na-na-na’ to sing along to. Wait, doesn't this sound like another Hanson song? Yes it does.

Let us compare the lyrics of Man on Top with You Can't Stop Us Now:

You're looking down
from your penthouse castle
Flaunting your dimes
hoping I will unravel

Out on the corner on your soapbox looking down
Waving your flag like this is a battle ground

See what I mean?

It’s hard not to interpret every ‘Hanson battle cry song’, as a great big “F*** YOU” to the band’s detractors and rivals, not to mention the stock Hanson Bogeyman, Jeff Fenster. Thematically, YCSUN and MOT are very close:


ain't no heavy
but my eye's on the prize
Jump in the ring and you're in
for a surprise


Your fancy words try to cut me down to size
Hey mister, mister, you're in for a big surprise

If the lyrics are beginning to sound a little too déjà vu for me these days, I still can’t help liking this song. The “Hanson against the rest of the world” theme lends itself perfectly to this kind of fist-pumping, old-school, road-trip-with-Sam-and-Dean type of rock. I predict that there will be a lot of Taylor-led jumping to this one in the next tour, so, ladies, make sure your bras are up to the job - that’s all I’m saying on this one.

Play or Skip? Play.

a.k.a. "Three Songs for the Price of One"

I remember liking this song a lot when I heard it in Tulsa last May, but what I didn’t remember was the decidedly ‘sitcom song’ feel of the piano and verse. It’s as if there are three different songs going on here:

#1 - Sitcom Song
#2 - Uplifting song (chorus)
#3 - Rallying the Troops -(crowd participation).

Part 3 is my favourite: this is Zac doing his Aragorn Battle Speech at the Black Gate in The Return of the King, riding his white horse up and down to an army of fans; “A day may come when the courage of men fails...but it is not this day!”. Cue fans following Hanson into Mordor (which could be a metaphor of the black hole into which we willingly step when we hand over our time, social life and above all, money, in the pursuit of Hanson).

My opinion hasn’t changed too drastically since Tulsa - I like the song’s uplifting feel, the simple celebration of joy per se. The choir, however, works only in part, possibly due to the fact that 99% of the audience in Tulsa was female, and as a result we sound like a children's choir. It's all bit "Annie"-like: Hanson & Special Guests: The Tulsan Orphanage.

On a final note - am I the only who finds Zac’s Michael Jackson-style ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ really out of place? Seriously, if you make sex sounds before singing a lyric about making ‘a joyful noise’, you’re kind of undermining the meaning of the song: are we talking about a particular kind of ‘joyful noise’? Maybe it’s best if we leave it at that.

Play or Skip? Play

a.k.a. “Don’t Call Me Señorita”

This is the song that had left the strongest impression on me in Tulsa: Taylor’s performance was different to what I’ve seen so far in the handful of shows I’ve been to. I loved his unusual delivery of certain lines, half-spoken, half-sung, heavy with melodrama - it was Hanson cabaret, and I was there to witness it.

Feeling Alive is a strange beast: part theatre, part epic, part church choir. As one of the members of the aforementioned Tulsan Orphanage, it’s hard to stay detached when listening to this song and not think of the experience of actually being there. All round, the recording of that song was one of those band/fan moments that don’t happen very often - and as a result, the song has certain magic feel to it, a secret alchemy I can’t quite figure out and which makes me want to surrender all my objectivity.

Don’t get me wrong: like Joyful Noise, Feeling Alive isn’t perfect. There’s too much going on at times - strings, bells, stomps, choir, and apparently random lyrics complete with made-up words, all nicely gift-wrapped in the obligatory uplifting chorus. But who am I to judge if Taylor Hanson asks me not to call him señorita one moment, only to order me to lift my hands up high high and reach up to the sky the next? I’ll have to suspend my disbelief for four minutes and pretend that it all makes perfect sense.

Play or Skip? Play

The Final Verdict

According to Hanson, Play is supposed to be the ‘other side’ of Loud, so it seems unfair to judge it as a standalone record. Loud was a welcome change from the last two members EPs, with much stronger songs and a more cohesive sound.

In Play’s case, the sound is almost too homogenous, with three songs that sound very much alike - Man on Top, Joyful Noise and Feeling Alive - and I can’t help thinking that decision to mix the ‘choir’ to the studio songs is what causes it. I understand why Hanson did it - involving your fans in a record like this is a really, really nice thing to do. But would a non-fan get this? Is Play the kind of record that you’d try and get people to listen to? Probably not: there are better examples of what the band can do, and if you can bypass the Fanson Police and sneak a copy of the Sound of Light EP to your friends, you might, just might, finally manage to convert them.

Play is fun, uplifting record, with five songs that will no doubt sound great on stage: let's hope we all get a chance to hear them in the next tour.
The Tulsan Orphanage Choir
From the PDF inner sleeve notes - credit to HNET


  1. Once again I am shocked by you complete wrongness. I may have to kick you out of bed in Jamaica. I love Freak Out. I think you're just too dark to appreciate it.

    1. Seriously, woman, you need to be more discerning and stop liking everything The Shepherd does! Brainwashed, much! ;)

  2. As always, I so enjoy your in-depth analysis/nerding out over new music! I'm coming from the opposite perspective on which tracks I enjoy: Freak Out is a "PLAY" for me for sure and Feeling Alive is a "SKIP." But I agree with a lot of your insights and opinions in general. Man on Top does feel like old territory. The "singalong choir" sounds good in theory but leaves something to be desired in execution. Do You Believe is Hanson (mostly Zac) in cheesy 80s rocker/Queen fanboy glory and it's fun as hell.

    Overall, these are songs that I'll enjoying hearing live (especially Freak Out and Do You Believe) but they're not songs that speak to my soul or move me with their messages the way that some of Hanson's work has in the past. The lyrics on this EP strike me as pleasantly bland/predictable at their best, and lazy rhyming exercises at their worst. I know this band can do better.

    I'm hoping they're holding back their best songwriting for that elusive next full-length studio album (we'll call it "25/7" for now). But in the meantime, I can definitely dance to "Play" in Jamaica :)

    1. I'll dance to Play too - and as per my disclaimer, I'll even dance to 'Freak Out' ;) But yeah, as you said, we know these guys can do better than this. The lazy lyrics are the most obvious problem, to the point that it's self-plagiarism. "Loud" is a much better record and one that the general public will never get a chance to hear. Hanson Logic.

      We'll keep hoping and praying for 25/7...

  3. I actually cut a sentence from my review that would have paired perfectly with something you said about DYBIL. You said you liked it more because it was pre-released. The sentence I cut was something about how I wished they pre-released "Man On Top" or "Freak Out" instead because I know from past experience that releasing songs early that I wouldn't normally care for makes me like them more (it happened with "Carry You There" for the Stand Up Stand Up EP), so it's totally true. The unfortunate flip side is it kind of made for a lackluster "release" of a song that I really do like a lot.

    I'm glad to read someone else's opinion of "Freak Out," even if it's a negative one. I feel like I don't have an opinion on it at all. But I'm with you on hoping it's great live and am open to letting a live performance sway me!

    And as much as I 1,000% LOVE "Feeling Alive," I completely agree that I don't think I'd be able to convey even an ounce of why I love it to a non-fan, and there is no way they would get what I get out of it. I'd actually be really curious to hear a non-fan's reaction to that song because I know I'm so biased. It's the same kind of bias that tells me the "Re:Made in America" documentary wouldn't mean much to an outsider. It definitely feels geared towards fans that have been a part of the band's history and understand what they have been through.

    1. I have now commented on your blog post but re: DYBIL - I also agree with your point that it somewhat spoiled the overall 'surprise'. I think it would have been worse if they'd pre-released one of the better songs, but as I was always going to either hate or 'meh' this one, the pre-release worked in its favour by the power of brainwashing, I guess ;)