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Hanson, Sweet Go Underneath

Their embraceable debut (1997’s Middle of Nowhere, featuring the Number One single “MMMBop”) sold millions of copies and established Hanson as TRL’s preeminent poster-teens. The grittier follow-up (2000’s This Time Around) alienated bubblegum-dependent younger fans and has yet to go platinum in the states. Now the brothers Hanson – Isaac, Taylor and Zac – are hard at work on a record they hope will marry the success of one to the punchy feel of the other and in the process show the world what they’ve know all along: Hanson are a hard-working, musically gifted and educated rock band.

Sessions for the new disc are well underway at their home studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the boys eyeing a fall release. So far, they’ve self-produced a handful of tracks and cut others with producer Bob Marlette (Tracy Chapman, Marilyn Manson), longtime studio buddy Stephen Lironi and engineer Steve Churchyard (Counting Crows, the Pretenders, Aimee Mann).

“There’s more reckless abandon on this record,” says Taylor. “A sense that we’re not gonna over-think things. I wanna leave space for people to hear the parts, the grit of the guitar or the driving rhythms. Not to say it’s not gonna be tight and that the songs won’t be pop . . . I love writing songs with that hook, that’s what I enjoy, like every Big Star song. But I want people to feel it. I want people to instantaneously be drawn in and go, ‘I don’t know why I like it. I don’t care if it’s Hanson or Black Sabbath, it’s just good.'”

Taylor Hanson referencing underground Seventies pop gods Big Star? Indeed the brothers are all wrapped up in the history of hooks. Taylor cites the Raspberries, the Cars and R.E.M. as recent influences, bands that perhaps led the group to call upon Matthew Sweet and ex-New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander, to help co-author a few tracks. Sweet collaborated with the band for a potential title track called “Underneath,” while Alexander helped pen, “Lost Without Each Other,” a song Taylor lists as a probable first single and about which he says, “You can’t help but move when you hear it. It’s has this kind of Cheap Trick rhythm.”

Sweet, who says he’s otherwise had minimal success writing with others (“I’m usually kind of horrified of it”), was stunned to see “Underneath” near completion in a scant four hours spent jamming in a Los Angeles rehearsal space. “I had this melody idea,” Sweet says. “I said, ‘Listen to this and see what you think.’ Taylor started playing it on piano and immediately adopted it. They started working on words right then, they had some debate system for deciding lyrics. I pitched in a few things, changed a couple of lines.

“I was amazed by them, watching them play and sing,” he continues. “You always got the sense that they were actually talented but they really have that brothers thing. They have a sixth sense when they play together.”

“It was very, very spontaneous,” says Isaac. “The way writing should be done.” Ironically, the Hansons had gone to Los Angeles not to collaborate with Sweet but instead to work with Ben Folds. Though writing with the North Carolina piano man was put on indefinite hold (scheduling conflicts, illness), the guys still hope to employ him at some point. Ditto for another rumored collaborator, Ric Ocasek (“I’m sure we’ll work with him but I don’t know if it’ll be this record or the next,” Taylor says.).

Of course a cynic might wonder if all these collaborations are part of some insidious Hanson Bros. play for street cred. Certainly Sweet and Folds lure a cooler crowd than anything Diane Warren or Backstreet’s Scandinavian posse could pen. “You could think of it in that sense,” Isaac says. “But it’s not really like that. It’s just more on a musical level.”

Elsewhere, Hanson’s work-in-progress looks to be entirely more eclectic than their first two efforts. Collaborations and production stuff aside (Taylor says to expect fewer loops and less scratching), the three young men have been doing some experimenting. “I think people will be surprised by the amount of rhythmic variety on this record,” Isaac says. “Each one of these songs seems to have a relatively unique feel to it. There’s one song we’re hopefully gonna put on the record that’s in 6/8 time. It’s called ‘Down.’ It’s really swing. I don’t think it would be a single necessarily, but it has a really cool, moving feel to it.”

Yet, however progressive or mature the forthcoming Hanson album sounds and however far it advances them with rock peers and acerbic journalists, certain suits will be keeping a watchful eye on SoundScan. That This Time Around sold well below expectations is not lost on Hanson themselves as their new album powers towards completion.

“You want to be able to sell records,” Taylor says. “You want to go out and play to a lot of fans. But the natural process of writing songs and feeling good about them has to outweigh that. The character, the heart, the credibility – those things have to be there first. But I think everybody – the band, the label – is looking towards the goal of having that song that makes people go out and buy your record.

“God knows there’s a lot of really lame stuff out right now,” he continues. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen but something’s gotta happen soon. I don’t know if that something includes Hanson or not, but it’s gotta happen.”

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