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'N Sync and Hanson

By Sean Richardson

MAY 8, 2000:  You're probably familiar with the numbers by now. On March 21, the second CD by Orlando kiddie-pop peddlers 'N Sync, No Strings Attached (Jive), set a new record by selling more than a million copies on the day of its release. By the end of its first week in stores, the album had moved an astounding 2.4 million units -- more than doubling the previous high set by the Backstreet Boys' Millennium (Jive) just last year. It was the pop-music equivalent of Mark McGwire's 70 home-run season: everybody saw it coming and yet it was still shocking.

'N Sync's hot opening week was the product of the same kind of megahype campaign that ruined the arrival of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace last summer. But so far No Strings Attached has come through unscathed. It continues to top the Billboard album sales chart; the single, "Bye Bye Bye," remains in heavy rotation; and the disc has more hits waiting in the wings. With a sold-out summer tour ahead of them, chances are the group's popularity hasn't even reached its apex yet. After all, most Soundscan-era first-week recordholders have gone on to bigger and better things. Garth Brooks's Double Live (Capitol) hasn't become the Kiss Alive-size classic he'd set his sights on, but the two other albums on the short list, Millennium and Pearl Jam's Vs. (Epic, 1993), have become radio staples and are generally regarded as definitive musical documents of their respective times. Okay, Backstreet's time isn't up yet, but since boy bands are now officially the biggest thing since grunge, I'm betting their legacy is secure.

But wait a minute -- how did we get from Pearl Jam to 'N Sync, anyway? One could argue that Hanson, whose second album, This Time Around (Island/Def Jam), comes out this Tuesday (May 9), broke things open for the current wave of kiddie-pop crossovers back in '97 by presenting themselves as a real rock band capable of more than just singing, dancing, and posing. And we shouldn't forget that sexy SoCal surfer dude Eddie Vedder's famous mug made it onto many a mainstream mall babe's bedroom wall back in the day. But Vedder the teen idol played second fiddle to Pearl Jam the serious rock band, whereas the boys in kiddie-corn groups, from the Monkees to New Kids on the Block, have been considered pin-ups first and musicians second, if at all. With guitar rock failing on the charts once again, however, even that seems to be changing. Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync just appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone -- for all its shortcomings, still more pop-music authority than teen tabloid -- in rapid succession, and none other than Robert Christgau, the "dean of American rock critics," gushed all over Millennium in the Village Voice when that CD came out last spring. One thing seems clear: the notoriously cranky and often elitist rock press establishment, which has traditionally ignored or openly abhorred phenomena like the New Kids, has begun to take pretty-boy pop seriously. In the past, no mere shortage of new rock heroes would ever have been drastic enough to bring critics around on shallow song-and-dance types.

The seeds for this new-found tolerance for pap were planted in the irony-rich soil of '90s indie/alterna-rock by artists like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who fetishized and celebrated the likes of Madonna and the Carpenters. If Moore could dig "Lucky Star" and still churn out challenging avant-guitar terrorism, surely serious rock fans could look for something of their own to appreciate in ephemera like Backstreet's "I Want It That Way" without giving up their indie cred. There's no use trying to explain how a song like that can make us so happy that we momentarily forget its laughable origin. It just does, and that's good enough.

On No Strings Attached, 'N Sync struggle to create their own "Lucky Star" -- a single so buoyant it has the power to sweep up even jaded rock types. This album is by-the-book but hardly state-of-the-art, a confounding mix of inane dance tracks and mushy ballads that offers few of the visceral thrills teen pop has always thrived on. "Bye Bye Bye," the first single, is plodding and ill-tempered, a bad omen of the oddly frowning 50 minutes to come. 'N Sync are too preoccupied with appearing tough to embrace the kind of tenderness Backstreet Boys scored with on "I Want It That Way." Their love songs are inundated with street slang and ghetto beats. Most of them degenerate into jealous-boyfriend rants and wanton party anthems.

But No Strings Attached does pack one transcendent trifle: "It's Gonna Be Me," the disc's second track and the follow-up single to "Bye Bye Bye." No coincidence that the tune is penned by Max Martin, the super-Swede who wrote both "I Want It That Way" and the Britney Spears smash "Baby One More Time." "It's Gonna Be Me" is more sugar than spice, with less bump-and-grind than Britney's jam and a hush-to-climax bridge as spine-tingling as the one the Boys sang last summer. As lightweight and breezy as the rest of the album is stilted and rough, it's the only concession to pure pop on the fastest-selling pop album of all time.

Apart from the two obligatory ballads, neither of which commands much attention, contemporary R&B is the name of the game on the rest of No Strings Attached. The disc gets tripped up early by the uninspired Jamiroquai ripoff "Space Cowboy" and a straight cover of Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid" mercilessly resurrected from the last great teen-pop era, the late '80s. The party finally gets started when of-the-minute R&B producer She'kspere takes control on the fifth track, "It Makes Me Ill," but the disc descends into empty gimmickry from there on out. The vocoder-abusing Internet sex fantasy "Digital Get Down" is a low point among lows, despite a surprisingly authentic drum 'n' bass interlude accented by a sleazy sex rap that's bound to confuse the group's younger teen fans as much as it excites the older ones.

Back in '97, the squeaky-clean Tulsa trio Hanson were instrumental in bringing teen pop back to the airwaves, and their "MMMBop" was soulful enough to earn the brothers a fair amount of critical praise in mags like Spin as well. Their new This Time Around (Island/Def Jam) isn't likely to have anything even approaching 'N Sync's immediate retail impact, simply because in the current climate Hanson look and sound more like a rough-and-tumble rock band than a flashy dance-pop outfit. Plus, in boy-band years, Hanson are a little long in the tooth -- hell, lead singer Taylor Hanson's voice has even changed since "MMMBop."

The Hanson style eschews the mechanized beats of today's teen-beat sensations in favor of organic retro-rock rhythms and blue-eyed soul power. R&B to them is Sam and Dave, not TLC. It's still plenty commercial and carefully produced -- a gaggle of studio pros augment the trio's sound on This Time Around, and they even employ a vocal producer (on loan from Aerosmith) to beef up the harmonies. But whereas 'N Sync's main talents are posing, dancing, and singing (in that order), the Hanson boys can and do actually play their own music and write their own songs, a fact that automatically brings them more cred with serious music fans.

As on the band's first album, Middle of Nowhere (Mercury), middle brother Taylor grabs most of the attention with his golden voice. And it doesn't hurt that he's able to sing about heartbreak from the convincing perspective of a 17-year-old. The second track, "If Only," is a respectable "MMMBop" clone, with virtuoso scratching from DJ Swamp (of Beck's touring band) on the turntables. Other guests include teen blues-guitar phenom Jonny Lang and Blues Traveler harmonica ace John Popper, both of whom reinforce the band's rootsy vibe with fiery soloing. And Hanson have added heft and depth to their power pop by keeping the guitars cranked up in the mix throughout. They sound particularly grown-up on the wistful "Runaway Run," which could almost fit in on a Sloan record.

Hanson do fall prey to the occasional bar-band cliché. There are one too many songs here about women gone astray, and a few too many standard blues notions weighing down the pop. But their trump card, like 'N Sync's, is a simple, universally appealing ballad that finds them doing what boy bands of all makes and models do best: singing their hearts out and forgetting about everything else. 'N Sync's final salvo, the teary a cappella showcase "I Thought She Knew," is one of the few highlights on No Strings Attached. It's a song that makes you wish they'd give up the tough-guy posturing for good and start a barbershop quintet. Hanson's "A Song To Sing" is even better. It's the wholesome sound of three brothers trading verses around the family piano on a Sunday afternoon in ardent defense of gospel's good name. "I'm looking for my radio/So I might find a heart to follow," they sing on the song's chorus, and "heart" is really the key. It's what Hanson's music has, and what 'N Sync could use a little of if they ever want respect for something more than breaking sales records.

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