March 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Fired Up!

Current Status
In Season
Various Artists
Razor & Tie
We gave it a B+

With all due respect to VH1’s sporadically touching ”Bands Reunited,” which made me care about Romeo Void for the first time in 20 years, I say enough with ’80s nostalgia. No matter how much kitschy appeal is assigned to Poison or Tiffany, let’s face it, folks: They sucked. Me, I’m yearning for a return to the days of a bustling economy and a Democrat in the White House, a time when the idea of a homeland security department was more sci-fi conceit than reality. Just in time for the finale of ”Friends’ and the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s self-destruction, I’m ready for — yes — some ’90s flashbacks. So is, apparently, the music business, at least based on three new collections that repackage Clinton-era alt-rock, dance tracks, and frat rock, aimed at those with fond memories of the peak years of Doc Martens, Joey Buttafuoco, and Howard Stern.

The subtitle of ”The Best of Hootie & the Blowfish” — ”1993 Thru 2003” — is almost poignant, given how this shlubby South Carolina bar band never matched the success of its debut. Not surprisingly, the collection dips heavily into ”Cracked Rear View,” extracting five of its cuts before moving on to songs from their later, less fortunate albums. With their watered-down (if well-crafted) mishmash of John Mellencamp, R.E.M., and the Allman Brothers riffs, Darius Rucker and his buds were never as horrid as their most zealous detractors exclaimed. Hating them was like despising a mediocre sitcom — it just wasn’t worth the effort — and their semi-hits package only reaffirms their harmlessness. The album also clarifies the reason for the band’s downfall: not public fickleness, but the growing disparity between their good-time image and their musical ponderousness (embodied in Rucker’s huff-and-puff growl and cumbersome later ballads). As easygoing as they supposedly were, Hootie simply wore us down.

Hootie’s first album arrived just months after Cobain’s death (and benefited from the public’s hunger for anyone who didn’t look or sound suicidal), but Cobain’s influence lived on in the commercial alt-rock hits compiled on ”The Buzz.” Currently sold on TV and the Internet, and available in stores in May, the double disc includes just about anyone who snuck onto pop radio after grunge made semi-discordant rock acceptable. They’re all here: sparkling one-shots (Semisonic’s ”Closing Time,” Better Than Ezra’s ”Good,” Len’s ”Steal My Sunshine”), likable novelties (the Presidents of the United States of America’s ”Lump”), white-soul wannabes (New Radicals’ ”You Get What You Give”), and whiny folk-rock white guys (Toad the Wet Sprocket’s ”All I Want,” Counting Crows’ ”Mr. Jones”). For all its intermittent kick, ”The Buzz” can be a buzzkill, a depressing reminder of the ways in which the promise of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and their Northwest ilk (none included here) deteriorated into a flurry of acts destined for VH1 where-are-they-now shows. Cobain knockoffs like Marcy Playground’s ”Sex and Candy” sound even worse than they did then, and bands that went too far in the opposite direction — the slaphappy Spin Doctors and Blind Melon — are equally grating. But the album does make one wistful for a time when complex singles such as the Ben Folds Five’s ”Brick” and Porno for Pyro’s ”Pets” shared airtime with the stamped-out rock machismo of Candlebox and Filter. Call it, at best, a semigolden era.

Club music, meanwhile, is the focus of ”Fired Up!,” which largely comprises dance hits from the second half of the ’90s. Who cares that many of those acts were hear-and-gone when they included unstoppable moments like the Quad City DJs’ ”C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” and Billy Ray Martin’s smoldering ”Your Loving Arms”? The music was disco updated for the computer age, but with a fundamental difference from that early dance-pop era: The female voices dominating the songs had even more attitude, from Madison Avenue’s snide ”Don’t Call Me Baby” to Stars on 54’s unwimpy remake of ”If You Could Read My Mind” (which proved a thumping club beat could be grafted onto anything). Fans of this genre are advised to skip the weak single-disc ”Fired Up!” sold in stores and spring for the more inspiring double disc hawked on TV and the Web, which features not only the aforementioned Martin and Quad City cuts but also Everything But the Girl’s ”Missing.” Any of those should have replaced Eiffel 65’s maddening ”Blue (Da Ba Dee).” There are limits even to ’90s nostalgia.

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