Though they've long been written off by mainstream pop audiences, Hanson has continued to play to a devoted cult following and, more importantly, emerged as an awfully good pop band. Their eighth album, Shout It Out, is the trio's most ambitious project to date, borrowing heavily from several eras of Top 40 pop in an effort to expand their sound. And, as with their last few albums, Shout It Out includes a few moments of real inspiration.
When all of the elements come together for brothers Isaac, Taylor, and Zac, as on the harmonica-driven "If Only" and radio-anthem-that-should-have-been "Penny and Me," they have proven that they're capable of brilliant pop singles that stand alongside the work of bands with far more street-cred, like Fountains of Wayne and Apples in Stereo. On Shout It Out, lead single "Thinkin' About Somethin'" fits that bill. Kicking off with a healthy dose of cowbell before the brass section transforms it into one hell of a Blues Brothers homage, "Thinkin'" is maddeningly catchy kiss-off song. It's a hook-upon-a-hook-upon-a-hook, culminating in a coda of "I've been getting a love that moves me/While you've been getting around," delivered in perfect three-part harmony. It's easily one of the best singles of 2010 (though the less said about the brothers' awkward dancing in the video, the better).
Unfortunately for Hanson, though, they've never been able to sustain such a level of quality over the course of a full album, and there isn't another song here that equals "Thinkin'." The melody and arena-rock arrangement of "Carry You There" are effective, but the song's lyrics find the band at their most maudlin: "You don't have to be afraid to just rely/On someone to hold the weight part of the time" is arguably the song's least embarrassing couplet. The strong rhythm section and horns on "And I Waited" wouldn't sound out of place on radio playlists alongside Adam Lambert's "Whattaya Want from Me" or Lady Gaga's "Alejandro," but it goes on at least a minute too long and ultimately overstays its welcome. If the album as a whole is a step up from the didactic, if well-intentioned, The Walk, songs like "Use Me Up" and "These Walls" are nonetheless mired in clichés that weigh down the band's gifts for memorable melodies and powerful hooks.
Other than the trio's weakness for trite turns of phrase, the major flaw on Shout It Out is its spit-polished production. With the exception of "Thinkin'" and "Voice in the Chorus," which favorably recalls '70s-era Elton John, most of the songs sound as though they've been run through at least one too many ProTools cycles. Every note is tuned to perfection, and the percussion lines have the precision of a metronome, making the performances sound robotic. That sterility works against the heavy piano power chords on "Waiting for This" and the ebullient horn section on "Make It Out Alive." In producing the album themselves, Hanson undermines their attempts to give their sound a bit more grittiness and soul.
What's encouraging about the record, though, is that Hanson's instincts are more or less on point. The effervescent brass sections, aggressive rhythm tracks, and AM-radio vibe they've incorporated are all logical and effective additions to their aesthetic. That Hanson has been around for well over a decade now makes it easy to forget that they're still a young band. And the elements that really work on Shout It Out suggest that they're only going to continue to get better.