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 

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