Hanson vs. Chronic Future: tale of the tape
This is a tale of two bands.
Both are from the Southwest. Both bolted out of the blue seven years ago as pubescent rockers with plenty of tweener appeal. Both released follow-up albums in 2000 that were widely ignored. Both eventually parted ways with their record labels, amidst frustration and unfulfilled expectations. Both recently re-emerged with new albums that reveal them to be all grown up, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
This is the story of Hanson and Chronic Future. Hanson, you probably remember, gave us "MMMBop," one of the most insistently catchy songs to grace the airwaves since Archie and Jughead dropped "Sugar Sugar." The song, and the band, divided 1997 America as much as any budgetary battle between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.
On the one hand, the tune had the innocent bubblegum charm of a Banana Splits classic, but it also had a way of arousing homicidal thoughts around the thousandth time you heard it. If you watched MTV or VH1 with any regularity, that was probably about a week after they debuted the clip.
Hanson was easy to mock. They were so giddy and cherubic they seemed to have flown in from an earlier era when the only two bands that mattered were the Osmonds and the DeFranco Family. But even indie-rock curmudgeons had to acknowledge that there was something kinda impressive about three baby-faced brothers who could play, write, and sing impeccable harmonies.
In a 1998 CMJ interview with Eddie Vedder, actress Janeane Garofalo expressed indignation with people who trashed Hanson; the following year, Ric Ocasek - who produced a few tracks that failed to make their dead-on-arrival sophomore release, This Time Around - favorably compared the group to Guided By Voices: "They are extremely talented kids, real musicians."
Their 1996 debut single, "Scottsdale," a smart-alecky slap at their ritzy, white-bread home town, flooded Arizona's alt-rock stations and the quartet sold 2,000 copies of their debut album over a six-week period. The following year, they were the much-trumpeted first signee to the Beyond Music label but, like Hanson, their growing-pains transitional album (4 Elements) fell through the cracks, and they floundered.
Hanson and Chronic Future have experienced similar career trajectories, but the big advantage that Chronic Future has over Hanson in 2004 is that their youth-brigade phenomenon never went national. They don't have any pop-cultural touchstones to live up to, or live down.
While their rap-rock fusion long ago passed its cultural expiration date, on their new Interscope release, Lines In My Face, they've made some concessions to modern punk-pop. "Shellshocked" and "Wicked Games" wouldn't sound out of place coming from the likes of Simple Plan or AFI, and the group's penchant for linking hooky, sung choruses to rapped verses works better than you'd expect. The kickoff track, "Time and Time Again," is the best example of this approach and it's already becoming a TRL favorite. The group also earned some alt-rock goodwill by playing 10 dates on this summer's Warped Tour.
Hanson has a bigger mountain to climb. Pop history is a road strewn with forgotten child stars, and there's not much precedent for successful transitions of the kind that Hanson is now attempting. The Jackson 5 made the leap from kid to adult act, but they had a fairly continuous string of hits along the way. The Osmonds fell off the map for ages, then headed to the family-casino capital of the free world, Branson, Missouri.
The production is rich and the performances are impeccable, but a conservative odor pervades the album. Several of these tracks would have been serious radio contenders in the mid-'70s, but they feel out of context in 2004.
Like many acts formed in childhood, Hanson's greatest strength and weakness has always been its reverence for music made long before its time. It was so well-prepped for success it never had a chance to rebel and wipe the slate clean. Nonetheless, any group with an average age of 21 that makes music this accomplished can't be dismissed completely. •