By David Browne
Updated May 08, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Hanson fans were understandably concerned when word began filtering out that the Oklahoma sibs were planning to ”rock out” on their next album. The transition wasn’t illogical: After all, Taylor, Ike, and Zac can both harmonize and play, they have a deep-seated love of ”Big Chill” R&B and rock, and they most likely want to be remembered as more than the founding brothers of ’90s teen pop. All well and good, but do we WANT a harder, heavier Hanson?

This Time Around, the boys’ official follow-up to their 1997 debut, ”Middle of Nowhere” (notwithstanding the cash-in release of live, Christmas, and ”early years” albums), answers that query with a forceful ”maybe.” The changes don’t begin or end with their voices, which are deeper and more solemn than before. Dense and beefy, the songs themselves are infused with flourishes more common to blues-rock jam bands than the Hanson of old. Tracks like ”If Only” and the unintentional War-Jethro Tull tribute ”In the City” cram in wah-wah guitars, thwacking Latin percussion, and breathy harmonica solos.

Lyrically the boys seem to have aged as well. They’ve loved and lost, apparently, and their life experiences (do their parents know?) are reflected in tunes steeped in grim-faced teen angst. Some sentiments are unexpectedly hardened: ”You stand there trying to look so sweet/Every word you say is so full of deceit,” goes a line in ”In the City.” Others are as overheated as the backing tracks: As Taylor moans in ”Dying to Be Alive,” ”How could I be dying?/I turned 20 five days ago.”

”Middle of Nowhere” tackled serious topics as well, but the music’s sunny-afternoon vibe buoyed the album’s spirits. By comparison, chunks of ”This Time Around” feel sadly labored. The record never devolves into the hammy, jejune blues of Jonny Lang (who makes a cameo appearance on the seesawing single ”This Time Around”). But as heartbreaking as it is for this Hanson fan to admit, the project reveals that the trio’s desire to grow is less problematic than what they want to grow into — a preternaturally stodgy, somewhat conservative old-school pop-R&B band.

That said, the album is far from a washout. Hanson still have the ability to throw themselves into singing and playing with an exuberance that’s lamentably rare in music overall, and the high points fuse their new, semi-grown-up sensibility and throatier voices with bundle-of-energy melodies. ”Wish That I Was There,” ”Sure About It,” and ”Can’t Stop” explore the duskier side of ”MMMBop,” just as the pining, gorgeous ”Save Me” expands on the power-ballad beauty of the first album’s ”Weird.” Best of all is the unstoppable bubblegum of ”Runaway Run,” whose chorus is guaranteed to rouse anyone from a depressed stupor.

”This Time Around” is a transitional album, and maybe not just for Hanson. It’s only a matter of time before the preadolescents who worship teen pop outgrow it and, perhaps finding themselves in a less ebullient economy, forge a new underground. (Personally, I’m hoping for a Euro-hip-hop-prog hybrid, but call me a dreamer.) As they awkwardly wander into musical adulthood, Hanson may once again be leading that charge into new territory. You only wish their new turf didn’t sound so old.