Thirty years later, ‘Hangin’ Tough’ still has the right stuff
Thirty-ish years ago, Boston’s New Kids on the Block released their second album — and unleashed a frenzy that almost made the music seem like a moot point. But the 30th-anniversary reissue of “Hangin’ Tough,” which bundles the second album fronted by Jonathan Knight, Jordan Knight, Joey McIntyre, Donnie Wahlberg, and Danny Wood (and shepherded by boy-band savant Maurice Starr) with remixes and a few brand-new songs, offers an opportunity to look past the screaming crowds and listen to the music.
While New Kids on the Block weren’t breaking new ground — Starr himself told the Globe in 1990 that he wanted “a white New Edition . . . the Osmonds with soul” with New Kids — the hip-hop-infused soul-pop on “Hangin’ Tough” still tickles the ear, 30 years and millions of tickets sold later. A lot of that can be attributed to the way the members’ vocals and personalities mesh and clash. Their chemistry shines through particularly well on the album’s ballads: McIntyre’s not-yet-cracked croon and Jordan Knight’s older, wiser coo give the glittering “Please Don’t Go Girl” extra end-of-the-school-dance pathos, while the backing vocals on the power ballad-adjacent “I Need You” sound heaven-sent.
But the true strength of “Hangin’ Tough” lies in the relative amount of sonic space it gives to its five principals. Credit Starr, who produced the album and has writing credits on all 10 tracks; while the ’80s have a much-earned reputation for being a decade where nothing was too maximalist, the best songs here hit as hard as they do because of his restraint. “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” is nudged along by grand drums, but its lack of the glop that weighed down so many of the era’s other slow jams gives Jordan Knight’s deliberate vocal performance — including that gravity-defying high note at the end — extra vibrancy. Similarly, “You Got It (the Right Stuff)” indulges in twinkling synths and bouncing-ball bass, but the space given to the boys’ vocals makes the melodic curveball thrown by Wahlberg’s desperate “All that I needed was you . . .” unexpectedly bittersweet, and the wordlessly vocalized bridge an invitation to dance in sync with the guys.
In hindsight, it’s a bit surprising that two of the songs that hewed most closely to the moment’s pop trends weren’t released as singles — surely New Kids mania was strong enough that they could have flourished on radio. “What’Cha Gonna Do (About It)” is punchy and flirtatious, its thumping beat borrowing heavily from Janet Jackson’s feisty track “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” with four of the five Kids — all but Jonathan — taking center stage amidst jagged synths and spiky guitars. The simmering “My Favorite Girl,” the only song on the original album to have members of the group credited as writers (Wahlberg, Wood, and Jordan Knight), has its roots in freestyle, the Latin-flavored dance-pop hybrid that was big on the charts and in Boston’s clubs in the late ’80s, right down to the gasped vocals. But as the remixes included in this package also show, period-specific flourishes — spaced-out synths and chopped-up vocals on the 7-inch version of “You Got It (the Right Stuff),” Def Leppard guitars on the “Tougher Mix” of “Hangin’ Tough,” more emphatic bass and drums on “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” — only dragged down Starr’s light production.
The reissue, released on Friday, doubles as a promotional opportunity for this summer’s Mixtape Tour, where the Kids head up a bill that includes four of their pop peers: dancepop auteur Debbie Gibson, mall-tour queen Tiffany, hip-hop real-talkers Salt-N-Pepa, and party-starting rap outfit Naughty By Nature. (The tour arrives at TD Garden June 28-29.) Perhaps appropriately,the new tracks show the group’s evolution from boys to men — and Wahlberg’s ascent to lead songwriter for the group — while cheekily saluting their past. The gently funky “80s Baby” features NKOTB and the rest of the tour’s lineup mugging through self-reflexive and mildly reflective lyrics about the decade that birthed them, name-checking pay phones, Kangol caps, and other pop-culture flashpoints of the era, although the very 21st-century vocal processing has a jarring out-of-time effect. “Boys in the Band (Boy Band Anthem)” salutes the New Kids’ predecessors (well, New Edition) and their descendants over stabbed synths, with Gibson dropping in to offer a winking tribute to the raunchy hip-hop duo L’Trimm’s “Cars That Go Boom.” “The Way” is a slick modern soul-pop tune that places the guys’ harmonies in a modern context a la their 2008 offering “Single.” (Be warned: The chorus’ f-bomb-spiked come-on might result in a mild shock for those who haven’t been following the quintet over the years.)
“Hangin’ Tough” wasn’t an album as much as it was a phenomenon, its lyrics obsessively analyzed by teen magazines and after-school kibitzes, its cover art repurposed for wall hangings and locker gatherings. But it’s still one of the better pure pop records of the late ’80s — when rock was splintering into hair metal and alternative, and hip-hop was just starting to establish itself as a cross-cultural force — catching lightning in a bottle while also setting the course for boy bands to come.