On Jeff Hanson’s 2003 Kill Rock Stars debut, Son, the Minnesota singer-songwriter made a name for himself with two distinguishable characteristics: his songwriting style, which bore more than just a few similarities to onetime Kill Rock Stars signee Elliott Smith, and his voice, a breathy, high falsetto that sounded nothing like what should have been coming out of the guy. If you’ve seen a picture of him, you’d get what I was saying. And now, just two years later, both of those characteristics are still, more or less, how Hanson left them. But his new self-titled disc shows a more mature, elaborate and even baroque side of the St. Paul native.
As the album begins its cycle, Jeff greets his listeners with a near-silence. You can faintly sense that he’s playing, but it’s almost inaudible. But Hanson’s naked whisper of a voice begins to chime in, gradually allowing the song to breath and swell into a grand, orchestrated affair. It’s one of Hanson’s longest and most elaborate songs to date, but those who grew accustomed to Son shouldn’t be put off. It’s still the same guy you found so intriguing the first time around. He does have his louder moments, as evident on the waltzing rocker “Welcome Here,” another six-minute-plus track that seems to progress in movements, as the four minute mark brings about a bridge that I, initially, thought was an entirely different song.
“I Just Don’t Believe You,” by comparison, is more rustic and folky, sounding closer to Iron & Wine and other like-minded Americana troubadours. But the next song, “I Know Your Name,” is more of a departure for Hanson, a lushly arranged power ballad of sorts, with a piano-laden intro, some mightily strummed power chords and a healthy amount of strings. I have to be honest though. Even though Hanson’s bigger songs are good, his stripped down, quiet moments are the ones in which he really shines. The gentle fingerpicked melody of “Someone Else” is absolutely beautiful. It’s shorter and simpler than many of the tracks that surround it, but because of that, it reminds me of Iron & Wine’s “Naked As We Came,” a brief, albeit gorgeous track that says it all without getting too fancy. There’s a real talent in managing to say more with less, and when he chooses to, Hanson commands it well.
As much as I want to just let that last sentence say it all, I have to append it by saying that Hanson also possesses a talent for writing a nifty little pop tune with full-band arrangements. “This Time It Will” is such a song, part Elliott Smith and part Nico’s “These Days.” Though its lyrics speak of loneliness and uncertainty, it’s a sprightly little tune that would make a nifty little single, were a radio station willing to play it.
Jeff Hanson hasn’t changed a lot on his second album. He’s still playing most of the instruments. He’s still writing pretty acoustic melodies. And that’s most definitely still his voice. But he seems to be challenging himself a little more this time around. And in the process, he’s written a great batch of songs.
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning
Iron & Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days
Elliott Smith – XO
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.