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Hootie's back with ''Fairweather Johnson''

Will their new album be as popular as ”Cracked Rear View”?

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Actual Fab Four comparisons may elicit charges of heresy. But if you were inclined to break Hootie & the Blowfish down by mop-toppy type, well, singer Darius Rucker, he’d have to be the Congenial One. Bassist Dean Felber would probably warrant a telling handle like, say, the Agreeable One. Which would leave guitarist Mark Bryan and drummer Jim ”Soni” Sonefeld to be, mmmm, the Pleasant One and the Gregarious One, respectively.

Here comes rock’s most verboten of N-words again: Even now, 13 million ego-distending album sales later, these Everyman Ubersellers remain inescapably, perversely, incorrigibly nice. Which may be anathema to those loyal to the ideology of rock & roll as antisocial force but clearly was no turnoff to the gazillion listeners who — alienated by alienation and burned out on burnout — have lately found Hootie’s surface angstlessness a refreshing post-grunge palate cleanser.

Down the hatch; here’s to the ascent of regularity. ”We are beer-drinkin’ buddies,” allows Mark Bryan, dispelling no myths as he nurses a cool one with his comrades in populism in a down- town Greenville, N.C., pizza parlor. ”We’re lucky in that we’ve been successful and all we’ve had to do is be ourselves. And if the perception of that is ‘the revenge of the normal,’ then that’s fine.”

Prepare to get your butts kicked again, alt-culture America. The next wave of conventional vengeance has just arrived in the form of Fairweather Johnson, the rapid-fire follow-up to the South Carolina crew’s still-mammoth 1994 major-label debut, Cracked Rear View. Like everything else about the band, the new album is nothing if not positively modest. Where supergroups like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac spent years in the studio figuring out how to follow up their blockbusters, Hootie — ingenuously claiming to feel not an iota of pressure coming right off one of the top 10 best-sellers ever — spent mere months writing and recording a successor that bears little of the apparent onus of overwork.

This one too will fail rock’s making-Mom-flinch test. But Fairweather is already attracting more critical respect than did the greatly slagged Rear View. Where that one was chockful of fairly elementary sing-alongs, the new record buries Rucker’s laments about maturing in more impassioned mumbles and a fuller, more ”organic” mix. Once penetrated, it’s an album packed with regrets, and a lot of those pangs implicitly concern how the lure of being in a band wreaks havoc on a personal life. But little of this hesitation is worn on the music’s agreeable sleeve, and there’s not one blues about What a Bitch It Is Being a Superstar.

”Success doesn’t suck,” says Rucker, cheerfully scrawling his name for still another admirer. ”Sure, you can’t go out as easy as you used to. So?”

Meanwhile, here’s a little secret for you attack dogs who thought the last album really did blow fishy chunks: You and Rucker agree.

”We’re tired of Cracked Rear View,” says the singer. ”I don’t think I’d have bought it, if I had heard it.