There are few gimmicks quite as irritating as musical kids. Especially, to be frank, American ones. The most annoying pop stars imaginable, only smaller, they grin through their braces, sing their precocious pre-pubescent hearts out and use their tender years as justification for being mediocre.
On that last count at least, Hanson were the exception. Yes they were annoying, too grinny and irksomely precocious, but they had “MmmBop”, an irresistible pop classic if ever there was one. And they wrote it themselves. Young they may have been, but they weren’t without talent. Even so, that eight years and two albums on they’ve managed to survive child stardom and return with a record as endearing and catchy as “Underneath” is staggering.
Evidently, like Russian gymnasts and Ukrainian tennis players, the Tulsa brothers have benefited from starting young. Again, all their own work, “Underneath” is self-assured and proficient to the point where it’s hard to imagine a forty something hit maker with an office hung with platinum discs doing better. It’s stacked high with obvious singles. “Penny & Me” and “Strong Enough To Break” are MOR pop-rock at its most FM friendly and addictive. Better still, the windows-open, stereo-loud romp of “Lost Without Each Other” shows that far from deserting them, their “MmmBop” pop sensibility has matured into a reliable source for sunny, feel-good sing-alongs.
The real revelation, however, is the potency of “Underneath”’s more emotional moments. Older, wiser and clearly not unfamiliar with the rigors of love, they manage to turn their radio rock to matters of the heart without sounding too much like Bon Jovi. Big ballads “Broken Angel”, “Deeper” and the title track overflow with intelligence and longing, not over-earnest fist clenching and schmaltz. For that alone they deserve all the praise they get.
So all-in-all, with every track practically a text book example of what great pop should sound like, even the ballads, Hanson’s return is a welcome one. From slapable teens to credible rockers, they’ve turned out alright – just as long as they don’t start giving every twelve-year-old with a guitar ideas.