MAX ’90s Weekend: Hanson’s Middle Of Nowhere – revisited

THE BACKSTORY:

A hard working garage band self-finances two records which they release independently to modest success, managing to shift a few hundred copies of each in their home state. When an A&R representative from a major label hears them play at the Wisconsin State Fair he flips and immediately signs them. The band's third record becomes a phenomenon, selling millions of copies worldwide. Aside from the quaint state fair aspect, this could be the story of The White Stripes. As it happens, it's the humble beginnings of Hanson – a group who shot to success off the back of their major label debut Middle Of Nowhere, introducing the scientific community to a measurement of time known as an 'MMMBop' and inciting pre-teenager riots along the way. We revisit their commercial breakthrough and find it holds up immaculately… 24 hours a day… in colour.


Thinking Of You

“Have you ever stood outside a picket fence, you can see through -but you can't get to the inside?” asks Taylor Hanson at the beginning of the album that would turn them into t-shirt fodder, cultural markers, and the first love(s) of an entire generational pocket. Well, have you? Hanson don't quite set themselves up as spokespeople of the disenchanted, but it's an earnest beginning to an album with only a few cloying, clumsy lyrical sections throughout. One thing that cannot be forgotten is that the band were 11, 14 and 16 when this record was released – younger still when it was recorded. This song was first released on their second album, as were a number of the tracks that ended up on Middle Of Nowhere. The previous version is of a slower pace and drags somewhat, but the structure and feel of the song is fully intact: the Dust Brothers production gives it a welcome, warm sheen. The Hanson brothers were raised on Motown singles compilations, and the base elements of these: soaring harmony beds, tight, hook-laden arrangements and funky percussion seem ingrained. Around the 50-second mark, where Taylor's voice breaks and they slide smoothly into the second verse is where this track really lifts off. The segue from this track into MMMBop is seamless. A great opening track, and one of many 'shoulda-been-a-single' moments on this record.

MMMBop

Ah yeah, the undeniable, indisputable, unassailable hit single that broke the band, inspired pandemonium on a scale not seen since T-Rex or The Beatles, spawned a measurement of time which is sadly not used enough in academic papers, and has unfortunately been the target of derision ever since thousands of masculine guys wondered who the blonde babe singing over badly green-screened flowers was. The song's main hook was originally intended as a vocal bed, over which the main chorus melody (lost to the annals of time – or one of Isaac's old notebooks) would be sung. This song was also a lot more mournful in its previous incarnation, before the Dust Brothers dust-brothered it up, lifting the tempo and adding the scratching – ironically, the only element which sonically anchors the track to a certain time-period.

Unfortunately, MMMBop is commonly considered to be a terrible song, despite topping 1997 single of the year polls in publications such as Rolling Stone, Spin, VH1, as well as the highly regarded Village Voice Pazz and Jop (see what they've done there?) critics poll. And they were right. The revisionists who bundle this single in with novelty efforts by Wheatus and the like are wrong. This is a classic pop song. The structure shifts and snakes at a breakneck pace, hooks crash gleefully into each other, and as a freewheeling introduction to a new group, MMMBop is pretty much perfect. How does Taylor cram so many syllables into the first line? Why is the second verse melody completely different to the first? Why does it sound like he says, “And Taylor, lose your hair”? Why did we all think Isaac's “could it be a daisy or a rose?” vocal-line was so jarringly deep back in the day, when now it sounds normal, albeit a little puberty blues. This is a great song.

Weird

Okay, this song doesn't hold up too well. It's a nice ballad, featuring a great vocal performance from Taylor-who, at 13/14, was an infinitely more emotive vocalist than most-especially in the middle-eight. Still, it did introduce a generation of people to the phrase “cookie-cutter world” which is a good thing, I suppose. “We've lived in the shadows, but doesn't everyone” is a great line, too.

Speechless

Now you're talking. Soulful, slinky, sex-drenched funk from three underaged brothers with parents who didn't believe in birth control (there are seven Hanson kids). The vocal melody grooves with the strength of a thousand Yeezys, while the paranoid lyrical content betrays a childhood spent devouring Michael Jackson records (Jackson sang about the haters way before anyone else even had haters). The vocal layering in the chorus is pure-Motown while the so-1997 production still holds up, despite the Dust Brothers' insistence on cramming samples and scratches into every nook of this song.

Where's The Love

The second in the “stop fucking me over, grrrl” suite was also the second single, and is perhaps as widely known as, and less written off than the first. Isaac (oldest, braces, etc.) gets his first real vocal outing in the “dark clouds all around” section (“which flower's gonna grow” was more an interjection than an outing, you see?) and he nails it. Zac (little drummer boy) gets his soul-vocal on in this bridge too, and what he lacks in power (c'mon, he was 10 or 11!) he more than makes up for in personality. 2:55 is the best part melodically speaking, the way they keep improvising and shifting the chorus melody slightly is pure talent and the smash-box ending is loose and perfect. Also, it's totally a Hacienda pill-popping baggy tune from 1990 if you close your eyes, a la Happy Mondays, Stone Roses or Jesus Jones. 

Yearbook

Numerous people I have discussed Hanson with over the years (there have been numerous, numerous people) recall this song making them feel weird in that way that sinister, creeping, minor-key songs can when you are too young to fully grasp the inherent emotion (see Hazard by Richard Marx, or My Girl – “he can't see without his glasses”). It's string-laden, with the chorus hinting at an unspecified tragedy. “There's a lying in your silence” has such an angry bite to it that, as with a lot of this album, it's hard to believe Taylor was only 13 when he recorded the vocal. It's dark subject matter for an album aimed at those in roughly the same age bracket as the brothers; luckily the following track contains the Zac line: “Turn me loose like a one-eyed goose” to level things out a little bit.

Look At You

An up-tempo, funky song that bridges the displaced small-town tragedy of Yearbook with the sincerely beautiful Lucy, Look At You is a companion piece of sorts to Speechless – sonically speaking, if not tonally. The last minute of the track, which features Zac's manic vocal improvisations, such as “turn me loose, like a one-eyed purple moose/louse/goose” (the Internet is yet to come to a common consenus regarding this – yet we have Google Earth) makes for the perfect transition into Zac's only solo lead on the album.

Lucy

It's fairly common knowledge that this album has a plethora of session drummers on it, and it's safe to say that Zac did very little actual playing on this record (again, 10 or 11) but he proves his worth with his cracked, sweet vocal performance on this lovely mid-paced pop tune. Zac's mournful vocal is only unwittingly funny when you imagine a jaded ten-year-old ruefully reflecting on the day he left his live-in lover. “And you say, that she's OK… I hope she is” he cracks, after asking after her à la If You See Her, Say Hello. Imagine an On The Beach-era Neil Young singing this, and it makes sense. A prominent staff member at a certain government-funded, national youth broadcaster recently confessed to me that this is her most-played track on Spotify and iTunes. 'Confessed' isn't the correct term though – nor should it be.

I Will Come To You

“When you feel that your soul is dying.” Whoa, dial it back a little bit, boys. Your target audience have not the emotional capacity to plummet these depths with you. Come to think of it, neither do you, really. But it sure sounds like you do. Isaac clearly gargled nails before this take, his rasp matching Taylor's torn vocal nicely. This should be the worst pile of mush ever, but quality songwriting, perfectly placed vocals, and an appropriately OTT key-change makes this an easy stand out. Also the “you woooon't have to reach out for me” vocal: immaculate.

A Minute Without You

Now onto the one-two punch of A Minute Without You and Madeline, secretly the best two songs on the record. This track is a freight train, Isaac's voice perfectly suited to take the lead on the verses, while Taylor plays support: swooping in with tight harmonies and his “ohhh, yeah” (45 seconds in, it's a classic Taylor move). The chorus is an exercise in lung capacity – try to sing this at a karaoke bar without winding yourself (actually, try to find this at a karaoke bar). The bridge is great (lyrically, it's a bit pedestrian: 11,14,16, remember?) and the breakdown section proves that Isaac can wail with almost as much abandon as Taylor. Finally, this track instills you with the ability to instantly rattle off how many minutes there are in a day at any given trivia night like some kind of Rain Man-genius, which is a nice trick to have up your sleeve – should that scenario ever arise.

Madeline

The best pre-chorus on the album. The best chorus on the album. The best lyrics on the album. The best breakdown/freak-out on the album. The best bass-line on the album. The best song on the album. You know it, I know it, don't try to pretend. (Taylor's vocals in the fade are amazing, as are the descending chords under the “you know it could be so much better” part.)

With You In Your Dreams

A nice, measured ballad to close the album proper. When Taylor's voice cracks at 1:25, it's a wonderful thing. The introduction of the gospel-esque backing vocals and the chugging rhythm track in the second verse, only to drop back down into the refrain, is great. This is a classy ballad, purportedly written from their recently departed grandmother's point of view, but probably just another love-them-then-leave-them tale from the ruthless boys that left Lucy. It's both a nice closer, and a red herring: tucking you into bed before the manic power pop of hidden track/bonus track/track 21 Man From Milwaukee jolts you out of your slumber.

Man From Milwaukee

Listen to that guitar tone! Those lazy, ride-heavy drums. Those tight harmonies. That killer chorus. Don't listen too closely to the lyrics – they are tripe of the highest order. Still it's fun and light-hearted and a nice 'encore' for the album – catchy as hell, with its shortcomings excusable by its very separation from the album proper. Also it gave birth to the title of the record, and contains the best moment on the entire thing: “This is Mother Bird calling Baby Bird/Baby Bird come in/Baby Bird /For the love of Pete, come in! /This is Baby Bird…Sorry I was watching Court TV/ Do you copy? Do you copy?/ Of course we copy… 24 hours a day… in colour.” It's as unhinged as the record gets, and it's a joy.

SUMMARY:

Middle Of Nowhere is a top-shelf album, which received almost unanimous critical praise upon release but suffered in reputation once its content and creators became ubiquitous- as good things often do. Take away the hair, the squealing fans, the follow-up Christmas album (which is also quite good), and just listen. All the way through. Then learn the chords to 'Madeline'. It's the ultimate party move.