On first blush, the major-label debut by this South Carolina bar band (the beginnings of which was a mid-’80s acoustic duo called the Wolf Brothers) is a thoroughly bland rehash of Woodstock-era pop values. On second blush, too. Beyond culturally inclusive wholesomeness, the quartet’s prime asset is singer Darius (don’t call him Hootie) Rucker, whose resonant, husky bear of a baritone gives the band’s otherwise generic ’70s-accented pop-folk songwriting its soupçon of soul and crypto-spiritual uplift. Offensive only to those who demand obscurity, an edge or some ballast in their music, Hootie offers economically played and harmless singalong radio fare for the many millions on the fringes of rock, especially those of a certain age, who hear the siren song of the Southern ’70s in the band’s grooves. As familiar as the face in a mirror, cracked rear view is just about as deep.
Although most bands in Hootie’s enviable position would be fatally blinded in the platinum headlights, rooted to the creative two-lane until the next unstoppable force came along to deliver a flattening blow, the group sounds utterly unperturbed by the pressure on Fairweather Johnson. (Merely releasing a follow-up before its mega-selling predecessor had completely run its course is an act of courage in this era of overly strategized micro-marketing.) Other than the casual sports goof of the title track (not to mention the rude colloquial possibilities of the title itself), the album carefully respects its predecessor’s safe virtues, adding a gloomy lyrical cast and more organ but little else. The fact that “Old Man & Me” is a band oldie can be seen as a genial nose-thumb to those who would level unwarranted accusations of corporate style-calibration. In Hootieland, it was ever thus.
The two early EPs are cassettes sold by the group at shows; the first (five songs) contains an early version of “Hold My Hand,” while the second (four songs) boasts another future hit, “Let Her Cry.” The five-song Kootchypop—a thoroughly professional effort which is 95 percent of the way toward the sound that made the band millionaires—features a second recording of “Hold My Hand” (cracked rear view actually features the third) as well as “Running From an Angel,” “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Old Man & Me,” a song recut for Fairweather Johnson.
The commercial failure of Fairweather Johnson could have ushered Hootie into obscurity, to join the other overnight successes of the Alternative Nation-era. Rather, the band turned out the excellent Musical Chairs, which contains some of their best songs yet. Combining the first album’s anthem-ready feel with Fairweather Johnson‘s more intimate context, Hootie play to their strengths without venturing too far from their bar-band roots. Rucker is more relaxed, and songs like “Las Vegas Nights,” “I Will Wait” and the surprising rocker “Wishing” benefit from the singer’s laid-back style. The back porch bluegrass picking of the plaintive “Michelle Post” is terrific, and about as experimental as this band is likely to get. Still, with just enough deviation from their earlier sound to keep things interesting, Musical Chairs is Hootie’s finest work to date.
The covers and B-sides collected on Scattered, Smothered & Covered are lukewarm. “I Go Blind,” from the Friends soundtrack, should have been a hit; otherwise, the band can hardly match the expectations of the songs they cover here. Setting themselves up to be compared to Led Zeppelin’s power, the Smiths’ wry humor, and R.E.M.’s Southern rock righteousness may be someone’s idea of an in-joke. In contrast to the original sources (in particular, Vic Chesnutt’s anti-hero anthem “The Gravity of the Situation,” turned into a duet of Rucker and Nanci Griffith), Hootie and the Blowfish sound downright dull.
Hootie waited three years before releasing their next studio album. In a world where nu-metal rules the modern rock charts, Darius Rucker and company can sound positively elderly. Still, if Dave Matthews can be a star, there’s hope for straightforward rock bands. Accordingly, Hootie & the Blowfish (produced, other than one song, by Don Was) is a solid effort, even if it lacks Musical Chairs’ songwriting prowess. The single “Space” and the lilting “Innocence” are the best things here. If nothing else, it’s to their credit that Hootie and the Blowfish are still trying.