A Strong Enough To Break Review
by: Bethany (website)
Strong Enough To Break. Just the title itself conjures up a pretty strong idea of the documentary and accompanying cd’s theme. For the purpose of this review, I’ll be looking solely at the album of demo tracks packaged with the September 2009 release of the documentary. This cd features several tracks that help flesh out the story told in the film — the story of a band struggling to please a record company that just didn’t get it. A band with, despite all of it, a very strong vision of who they are. Allow me to break it down track by track and see what a fan can find the in demos that Island Def Jam just didn’t see.
The album opens with Dancing In The Wind. I’ll admit, I don’t really like this song. I love some of the lyrics (“the music is a place to hide” is a perfect mission statement for the band), and it’s great for driving. But I tend to skip over it. This demo version is a little rougher, a little heavier on the drums, and I really like it better. Anything to add a little more rock is good, you know?
The next track, Crazy Beautiful, is one that I have always enjoyed. This song has two things going for it. Okay. more than two. But two big things. First, the awesome shuffle beat. It’s like Led Zeppelin’s Fool In The Rain, but as a pop song. The demo still has that awesomeness. But the horns, man! I know they are there, but they aren’t emphasized like on the album version. And that makes me a sad panda.
At first, this mix of Underneath didn’t really strike my fancy. The harmonies don’t blend all that well, which is a little jarring. But it also has some nice moments of soulful Ike and are-sure-you-he’s-really-a-dude-Zac that are more pronounced than on the album version. Also, the strings come out a little more, which is nice. And it isn’t really a plus or minus, but Lispy Mclisperson totally says “shitting all alone in this place.”
This version of I Almost Care seems to be very similar to the one that featured as a bonus track on some editions of Underneath. The only thing I can really notice that is new to me is the lack of a reprise at the end. I really like the song, although I think the vocals could be cleaned up a little. But that’s sort of par for the course, innit? After watching the film, I have this idea that the “phone call” in it is from one of the record label douchebags, which is really fitting with the song’s sentiment (if you take out the relationship aspect). i don’t know if it is true, but I like the notion.
For anyone who bought or downloaded The Princess Diaries soundtrack, Wake Up isn’t a new song. As Zac pointed out in the interview, it is really different from their other stuff — the mandolin, the breakdown “Kansas moment,” and how it manages to actually fucking rock even with a goddamn mandolin in it. This song had me so excited for Underneath and then… the album didn’t sound like this at all. Although in a weird way, bits of the songs on Stand Up Stand Up remind me of this, so I’m hopeful for more of this awesomesauce in the future. I will never not love this song with a burning passion.
Dream Girl is a song that, according to the interview, the boys began writing in 1994 or 1995. So, it comes as no big shock that the lyrics aren’t the deepest. I suppose that’s why I’m not very fond of it. Every song doesn’t have to be the goddamn slam dunk that some of them are. It is fun to listen to, though. I may not like the lyrics, but it has a nice sound. I really can’t say anything nicer about it.
I’m not sure how many demo versions of Breaktown have been released and/or leaked, but none of them have every done much for me. This one has me warming to the idea a little bit, though. I think there is a great song in this, and I hope they keep pounding away at it, since obviously even by 2006 they didn’t feel ready to put it away. I think a little less of the funky percussion and a little more guitar would be cool. During the Taking The Walk podcast this song was referred to as a power ballad, and I think with that aspect played up more, it could be really, really nice.
Someone is one of those songs you listen to once and go, “Okay, I’ve heard it. Time to move on.” I think I like this version better than the duet version. It has a little more funk and soul. Isaac does the soulful thing very well. Actually, can I just get a whole album of this? Isaac’s Ooey Gooey Lovey Dovey Side Project needs to happen, like now. With gratuitous French and sexy growling, please. All in all, I think this is a song that should have been considered finished after the demo, and not fiddled with any further than that.
At some point between the recording of Underneath and The Walk, Zac really found his voice. But this was his awkward period, and Let You Go is recorded proof of it. He hardly even sounds like himself. But there are some shining moments in this song, to be certain. The chorus leaves a little something to be desired, but the verses have some very nice little lines. “Looking for a love I thought I could control,” kind of makes me swoon in very inappropriate and illegal ways. I was kind of ambivalent about this one when I first heard it, but it deserved another listen — it doesn’t hurt that this is a bit higher quality than the leaked demo.
Now it’s time for me to really be the bad guy. Hearing this demo, I can understand why the A&R guys had a little bit of reservation about Hey. The album version is much, much better. Obviously the lyrics have been refined since this recording. “When it feels like I’m grooving, you keep breaking my stride?” Seriously? And what kind of yachts? I’ll take this time to mention that I really like the color choices — red, white, blue. I don’t think that’s coincidence. The vocalizing is also kind of annoying in this version. I had to take a break to listen to the album version after this, just for comparison’s sake. The demo doesn’t have nearly the same power as the finished version. It’s a fun little groove, but it doesn’t say everything it could say.
I believe I had heard the leaked demo of My Own Sweet Time, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. The first thing I’m struck by is the not-so-subtle Beatles reference in the first line. I like the way has a really darkness to it. I think that’s what Jeff The Douchebag said as well, and it may be the one time he was ever right. But in seriousness, I just like how these guys can take a cliche and write a really good song around it. You think it’s gonna be totally trite, but it has some real emotion to it. That takes talent. Oh and the “do do do” bit at the end is a really nice touch.
Out Of My Head is, I believe, the only song on this album that is entirely new to me. New Hanson music is always welcome. I definitely hear a lot of Middle of Nowhere in the beginning of this. I’m sure that was intentional. Not sure if the first word is “then” or “and” but I like how either way, it starts in the middle of a thought. It’s so subtle but it turns everything kind of on its head, you know? You think you know what to expect, but that isn’t quite what you get. And that’s a good description of this band in general. There isn’t much else really new or innovative happening in this song, but it’s still a nice listen.
Knowing the backstory behind the Penny and Me demo makes it so much more special. This song is a picture of an amazing moment in Hanson history. Also, it is one of my favorites from Underneath. Like Dancing In The Wind, it’s really rough recording. Of course it is, it was recorded in a damn closet on a four track cassette recorder. Again, the lyrics are a bit different, but the one thing that is really missing here is the harmonies. His voice is pretty, but the Taylor Hanson Show is just not my scene. I needs me some purty harmonies. Ike on the bottom, Tay in the middle and Zac on top. Ahem.
Love Somebody To Know is a silly but fun song. iTunes tells me I’ve only got the Underneath Accoustic version, but I feel like I’ve heard another version too. If that is true, I don’t remember much about it. Not enough to compare. I’m a bad fan, clearly. “We spend the evenings, making up for lost time” is such a simple but sexy lyric. The irreverent, fun lyrics kind of reminds me of The Barenaked Ladies song “Alternative Girlfriend.” I wonder if that was their inspiration?
There isn’t much I can say about their cover of Teach Your Children. I adore this song so much and their voices work so damn well for those harmonies. These boys could just do nothing but covers and I would still be just as in love with their music. Full album of covers, anyone? I would buy it.
The first version of Strong Enough To Break that I ever heard was a very stripped down radio performance, recorded in about September 2001 (not long at all after it was written). This demo retains a lot of that raw feeling, which is nice. Knowing now that the lyrics came out of that heartbreaking phone call with Jeff the Asshole Supreme? It’s just a punch in the gut. I may like this better than the album version, actually. The roughness of it really works. This song needs the jagged edges.
It is truly amazing to have such a close look at the years of blood, sweet and tears that went into producing Underneath. I’ll freely admit that it isn’t my favorite of their studio albums. Is it the best album that could have come out of those circumstances? Maybe. Probably. For all the things it is and isn’t, it is a true, honest look into the hearts of those three boys. And this mish-mosh of demo songs takes us even further into their world.