Subtitling their third major-label album "The Independent Recordings '95-'96," the Hanson brothers would like to clear up any misconceptions you might have: They do so have credibility; they do so have roots. Assembling tracks from a pair of home-brew albums recorded before Middle of Nowhere and "MMMBop" made them platinum-selling teen pinup idols, these work-tapes-as-evidence do the job nicely. The boys are not untalented, they can write a tune, and even when that tune is awful they gamely see it through to the end.
Of all the many problems Middle of Nowhere had, the biggest was that it was impossible to trust, even at its catchiest. In the hands of the Dust Brothers and a phalanx of session men, Nowhere positioned the pubescent trio as grown-up pop stars in kids' clothing; youth provided the gimmick, while the song doctors took care of the rest. With the safety net of professional production values removed, all 3 Car Garage has is youth -- brothers Isaac (guitar, piano), Taylor (keyboards), and Zac (drums) singing and bashing out pop tunes offhandedly, sometimes off-key. The result is amateurish performances and derivative songcraft. But unlike Nowhere, at least it's honest.
Claims that Hanson deserve critical immunity because of their youth don't wash: Most preteens aren't charging you $15.98 for the privilege of hearing how they feel. And besides, as the Jackson 5 proved, musical sincerity and meaning aren't too much to hope for out of children. So, surprise, musical sincerity is what Garage shows off best: The original "MMMBop" included here is better than the hit version's overcooked treatment. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- Zac's drum-theory drumming, it builds its own chirpy momentum, and like all great throwaway pop songs it succeeds on charm alone; no messy overdubs and bargain-basement scratching to clutter the proceedings. And if the airy, gospel-styled harmonies of "Stories" and the wooden kiddie-funk of "Day Has Come" feel unfinished, there's at least some pleasure in listening in on a band while it works out its identity.
As for meaning ... well, they do try hard, but Isaac's piano stylings on the ballad "Surely as the Sun" is a painful endurance contest, and their six-minute fairy-tale rock epic "Soldier" (see, this one-legged toy soldier who comes to life and has these adventures ...) is rough going as both song and metaphor. But even at their most mawkish, their most forced, their most musically failed, the Hanson brothers emerge as a band you can trust. Why? Because Hanson have credibility, that's why.
-- Mark Athitakis
Evan Parker/Ned Rothenberg
Though he's widely known as one of the more compelling solo players on the international music circuit, saxophonist and clarinetist Ned Rothenberg excels as well in all kinds of improvisational contexts. Over the past 20 years he's worked on ear-bending provocations with new-music supercommando John Zorn, electroacoustic experiments with arty S.F. composer Paul Dresher, and intergalactic voyages with Russia's avant-garde chanteuse Sainkho Namchylak. His latest recordings -- Potion, with flutist Robert Dick and trumpeter Herb Robertson, and Monkey Puzzle, with saxophonist Evan Parker -- find him once again pushing the music to the fringe (and then some) with a few of today's most dynamic explorers.
On Potion, Rothenberg, Robertson, and Dick's collective composure projects a peculiar feeling of patience and confidence. At times the combo's impeccable manners recall a classical chamber recital. Carefully measured but not too restrained, the album is split between a tight batch of improvised tracks and a few scored titles (one by each bandmate and "For Every Action" by NYC trumpeter Dave Douglas). About midway through a piece called "Idi Om" (an apt play on words asserting both the band's genre-defiant approach and meditative lean), Rothenberg starts repeating a funky rhythmic figure over and over as a kind of propeller around which Robertson weaves a hypnotic single-note drone. Dick almost immediately commandeers the leadership by bounding in and out of Rothenberg's riff. The piece ultimately unfurls in a great kinetic gesture, like a three-tailed kite looping about on invisible currents with graceful unpredictability. Each player's keen intuition about when to push and when to yield to the music's natural flow suggests the kind of mature sense of timing you only find among the finest spontaneous composers.
While Potion illustrates Rothenberg's ability to move synergetically with like-minded partners, Monkey Puzzle tests his chops (and his ear) in a considerably more taxing environment. The sheer technical demands of matching saxophone colossus Evan Parker would wear out lesser instrumentalists after only a few minutes -- especially in a duo situation. But Rothenberg goes horn to horn for the duration of this remarkable session, which includes two epic 15-minute blowouts, and his articulation and imagination do not waver. The players' dual circular breathing grooves of precisely pitched, deeply interlocked polyphony (with -- ahem -- psychotropic microtonal interplay) create a cascading trance effect that could likely reconfigure one's hearing patterns. This is dangerous music.
-- Sam Prestianni
Ned Rothenberg performs solo and in duets with electronic musician Bob Ostertag on Friday, May 15, at 8 p.m. at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Eighth Street). Call 626-5416.