Retro Modern “Retro” Pick: Hanson’s Middle of Nowhere (Album)
Introduction: Hanson is a multi-instrumental, indie-pop band hailing from Tulsa, Oklahoma comprised of three brothers: Isaac, Zac, and Taylor.
Hanson recorded two independently financed and released albums, Boomerang (1995) and MMMBop (1996), that, in addition to their live performance skills, were pivotal in attracting attention from Mercury / Polygram Records. Said record imprint signed the trio to their first major label deal in 1996. Their resulting (official) debut album Middle of Nowhere appeared on May 6, 1997, kickstarting a career that has spanned two decades.
Synopsis: Brothers Isaac, Zac, and Taylor Hanson had been working hard at honing their own flavor of band-driven pop / rock as a live and studio act at the outset of the 1990s. Keyboards, drums, piano, guitar, and bass, between all three brothers, were covered; vocally speaking, they had a singular unison vocal style but could split leads democratically. Their first attempts at making a record, Boomerang and MMMBop, further blueprinted their harmony-inflected, guitar-driven stance that echoed the Jackson 5 and Steve Winwood. Self-contained in the best sense of the word, Hanson was still open to collaborate.
When they landed at Mercury / Polygram, they paired up with The Dust Brothers and Stephen Lironi on the production end ― Lironi also doubled as a songwriter. Hanson wrote with or recorded material from a range of lyricists; notables included Brill Building legends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and chart stalwart Desmond Child. However, they also introduced some of their work too, notably a track called “MMMBop.” The splashy jam originally appeared on and operated as the title track of their aforementioned second pre-major label LP.
The finished product unveiled in the spring of 1997, Middle of Nowhere, was an ideal mix of jam session improvisation and studio dexterity along the record’s singles and album material. The hook and verse infrastructure supported Hanson’s juicy guitar riffs, elastic bass playing, handsome percussion, and enthused vocals on the loose, pop-funk uptempo numbers “Madeline” and “Man from Milwaukee.”
On the downtempo end of the spectrum, Hanson favored the power ballad form on the foreboding “Yearbook” and romantic yearning of “Weird” and “I Will Come to You.” The latter two songs were a part of the quintet of five singles pulled off of the album from April 1997 to July 1998: “MMMBop” (U.S. #1), “Where’s the Love?” (U.S. Top 40 Mainstream #6), “I Will Come to You” (U.S. #9), “Weird,” and “Thinking of You.” “MMMBop” was the hit. The exuberant slice of pop topped the pole position in a multitude of global markets, including America, and became one of the most identifiable anthems of the 1990s.
This proved to be both a triumph and a problem for Hanson. “MMMBop”‘s ubiquity led lazy, mean-spirited critics to label Hanson as “disposable” or “manufactured,” notions that couldn’t be further from the truth, as the band were one of the few pop acts of that period to write and play their own music. Further, in a story all too well-known within the music industry, a label shuffle led to Hanson’s absorption into the Island / Def Jam roster. There, they launched their fine second album, This Time Around (2000). The project improved on their funky pop / rock hybridization, but lack of label support doomed the record from its inception.
Hanson went on to found their own label, 3CG Records, which housed their next four superb studio albums: Underneath (2004), The Walk (2007), Shout It Out (2010), and Anthem (2013). While the brothers wouldn’t reach the dizzying highs of Middle of Nowhere ― the record tallied 10 million sales globally, four million domestically ― they continued to sell fair-to-moderate amounts of their stated 3CG stretch of LPs. Even better, due to their reputation as a cracking live outfit, they’ve become one of the most respected indie-pop bands of the last 20 years.
Middle of Nowhere has remained as precocious as it was in 1997, brimming with zest and the promise of a band that had a sound that was only just beginning to make itself known.
Middle of Nowhere available via Amazon