Pop Goes the World
In Defense of Hanson's Shout It Out

Hi there. I’m back. Did you miss me? You look different. Did you change your hair?

What’s that? Oh, right, it’s me. I look different. Yep, for the first time in nearly 10 years, tm3am.com has undergone a complete redesign, courtesy of my genius friend Mike Ferrier. The goal here was to maintain the original look, with the scrolling column in the middle, but get rid of the frames, and clean the whole thing up. You’ll notice there are titles at the tops of the columns now, and there’s a link to my blog on the left.

I’m really happy with it. Infinite thanks to Mike Ferrier for putting this together. I hope he’ll do something similar for the 20th anniversary.

So I’m back from vacation, and excited to get writing again. The next couple of months are going to be awesome. New things by Devo, Cowboy Junkies, Tom Petty, Suzanne Vega, Foals and Sarah McLachlan are already on the shelves, with records by the Chemical Brothers, Eminem, Kele Okereke, Sia, Robert Pollard, Wolf Parade, Big Boi, Crowded House, Sun Kil Moon, Jimmy Gnecco, Marc Cohn, Arcade Fire, Ray Lamontagne, Eels, Sixpence None the Richer, Richard Thompson and Trent Reznor’s new project How to Destroy Angels set to join them.

Oh, and on June 29, we get the new album from a little outfit called The Choir, possibly my favorite band on the planet. And I get to see them play live two days later. Also, I’ve just heard that Sufjan Stevens is working on a new album, at the National’s studio, right now. Life is very, very good. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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I review a wide variety of music on this site, much of it relatively obscure. I’ve heard a lot of stuff that most people don’t have the time or inclination to track down, and I work hard at keeping up with what’s happening in many different corners of the music world. This has led some people to believe that I have a modicum of credibility.

If that’s true, here’s where I put it on the line again, because I absolutely love the new Hanson album.

I get a lot of shit for being a Hanson fan. It usually takes about ten seconds for some smartass to start singing the chorus to “MMMBop,” with a self-satisfied smirk. This response assumes two things. First, that singing the chorus to “MMMBop” will annoy me, which is usually true, but second, that the Hanson brothers still sound like they did when they were teenagers, which is totally wrong. Hanson gets painted with a Nickelodeon-pop brush way too often, mainly by people who haven’t listened to a thing they’ve done since 1997.

I give Taylor, Isaac and Zac Hanson a lot of credit for simply pushing through this noise and making the music they want to make. Hanson is a pop band, no question, but they’re an old-school kind of pop band, one with killer melodies and hooks, fine chops, and with a strong sense of craft behind their exuberant grooves. All three brothers are good musicians, and while they’ve never written a song that will set the world on fire, they’ve certainly turned out more fun, well-written pop songs than anyone had any right to expect.

All of which brings us to Shout It Out, their fifth and best record. If you haven’t heard the dynamite first single, “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin’,” check it out. I’ll wait. Pretty good, right? Now, here’s why Shout It Out is the best thing Hanson has done: on their last two records, 2004’s Underneath and 2007’s The Walk, the Hanson brothers tried for respectability, working hard to sound like adults. They layered on thick production, took on darker themes, and strove to break free of their teen-pop past. They were good records, but they sometimes just tried too hard.

Shout It Out, on the other hand, is full-on fun. This is the record on which the Hansons stopped caring what you think. They wrote 12 swell pop songs, played them with minimal fuss, and called it good. The result is a joyous platter that practically takes your hand and leads you out onto the dance floor. I defy any fan of well-made pop music to listen to the first three tracks and not fall in love. “Waiting For This” has a superb singalong chorus and a neat Isaac Hanson guitar solo. “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin’” is a Motown-style romp of the highest order. And “Kiss Me When You Come Home” is built around an appealing Jackson 5-style piano figure that should wipe away the last of your resistance.

And then comes “Carry You There,” a slow-build with a wonderful verse melody and a gospel-style coda. I checked to see if they hired a choir for the ending, and they didn’t – it’s all the Hanson brothers, layering their voices atop one another. At this point in the album, I just can’t wipe the smile from my face. This is so much fun.

Sure, there are low points. “Give a Little” is generic, and lets the well-arranged horn section do too much of the work. “These Walls” kind of sits there, and while the beat of “And I Waited” is insistent and explosive, the melodies are a bit lacking. And yes, the Hansons will never be great lyricists. These are songs about life and love, and the words are straightforward and radio-ready.

But hell, I don’t care. Not when the songs are as good as “Make It Out Alive,” a piano-based monster I would accept from Ben Folds, or “Use Me Up,” a sterling ballad that finds Taylor Hanson digging deep. The Hansons’ voices have deepened, but they still retain that youthful quality, and they sound just so happy and grateful to be making music. They say as much in “Musical Ride,” a song that doubles as invitation and thank you. It’s so refreshing to hear sentiments like these in pop music.

I’ve been asked a few times over the past week just who Hanson is making this music for. But that’s the beauty of Shout It Out, and of this band in general – they’re making this music because they love it. The Hanson brothers are rich enough that they could stop right now, and coast on “MMMBop” royalties. Instead, they have their own record label, they produce their own stuff, and they make whatever music they want to make.

And on Shout It Out, they’ve made stand-up-and-dance pop music, well-crafted and full of life. Between this and Taylor’s side gig in Tinted Windows, I hope it won’t be long before it will be all kinds of cool to be a Hanson fan. Until then, I really can’t do anything else but tell everyone I know how much I love this album. If you see me driving anytime in the next few weeks, grinning and singing my little heart out and making air drum motions, chances are I’m listening to this.

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Now for a couple of pop albums that have a little more credibility and cachet, but are a lot less successful.

It’s been five years since Teenage Fanclub had a new album. You’d think they’d sound a little more excited about it. But on Shadows, their Byrds-y, acoustic-based pop is the same as it’s been for a long time, if not a little more subdued. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Shadows takes a few listens to really sink in, and even then, much of it is forgettable.

Honestly, at this point, though, I can’t expect any more. The Scottish Teenage Fanclub first hit big over here with “Star Sign” in 1991, aping the grunge sound that was so in vogue. But since then, they’ve revealed themselves as pleasant, atmospheric pop songsmiths. Over time, the electric guitars all but disappeared, leaving breezy acoustics, strings and organs. Shadows is the quietest thing they’ve made. There’s nothing wrong with this album, and when the band hits on a classic pop hook, as they do on “Baby Lee,” they sound like something out of time.

But Shadows sounds oddly rote, like the band is making another album out of some sense of duty. Teenage Fanclub’s three songwriters (Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley) each pen four tunes, and take even turns presenting them, and every one of them is satisfied with simple tunefulness. The album never kicks in, never provides that burst of energy that could have taken it somewhere else. They’re after that mid-period XTC sound, but even when Andy Partridge stripped back his band’s sound to nearly nothing, he never lost the edge that made them one of the finest acts on the planet.

Teenage Fanclub has lost that edge. There are songs here I like, mostly from Gerard Love: “Into the City” is a fine song, with a delightful ba-ba-ba coda augmented by chimes. “Shock and Awe” is perhaps the most energetic thing here, and “Sweet Days Waiting” lives up to its dreamy title. There’s really nothing here I don’t like, in some way, but I can’t remember much of it. It’s simple and pleasant and almost weightless.

I had higher hopes for the third Rooney album, Eureka, but I was similarly disappointed. Rooney’s second effort, 2007’s Calling the World, was a triumph of ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired pop, and with “I Should’ve Been After You,” Robert Schwartzman wrote his first bona fide classic. I hoped the third album would build on that success.

Instead, it’s merely a competent pop record. As with Teenage Fanclub’s album, there’s nothing here I don’t like in one way or another, but there’s nothing that will stick with me once the CD stops spinning. “I Can’t Get Enough” has a Rivers Cuomo vibe to it and a fun, if fairly typical chorus. “Only Friend” has a nice Supertramp sound, all repeated pianos and analog synths, with a quiet breakdown in the middle. “Into the Blue” references Jeff Lynne, even to the point of subtly altering Out of the Blue’s title. It goes on like this, ‘60s and ‘70s influences piling up, but the songs just aren’t there this time. Just listen to “All or Nothing,” a bland piece of simple writing that spends four minutes doing nothing much.

The single best thing on Eureka is also the shortest: “The Hunch” packs a rollicking melody, stomping guitar part, awesome horn arrangement and cheesy-cool organ bits into a dazzling 2:30. There’s only one problem: it’s one of the only songs here not written by Schwartzman. (Drummer Ned Brower and guitarist Taylor Locke co-wrote it.) That’s all the proof I need that we’re listening to a dry spell from Rooney’s main songwriter.

I hope it’s worn off before Rooney’s fourth record, because Schwartzman is better than this. I don’t want to give the impression that Eureka is awful. It’s perfectly capable pop-rock, and there are a couple of good songs here. But overall, it’s flat and uninspiring, and not up to the standard Rooney set last time out. Like Teenage Fanclub’s album, it’s not bad, but it ought to be much better.

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Next week, tons of stuff. I’ll definitely review Devo (spoiler: it’s great), and no doubt a few others. It’s good to be back.

Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.