Darius Rucker, the lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish, feels your pain. ”I see people holding back, trying to find another reason so they can walk away/And it makes me scream,” he moans on Fairweather Johnson, the band’s second major-label album. Rucker feels plenty of his own anguish as well. Every song teems with sensitivity-training lyrics like ”There’s so much I can feel/So much I conceal” and ”Control has left me/And I can’t feel another thing.” If he weren’t in a platinum-level band, he could probably be found performing Jackson Browne covers in the local open-mike bar.
For anyone who listened close to the new album’s predecessor, Cracked Rear View, these sentiments shouldn’t come as a surprise. With its tales of sob-stricken lovers, irresponsible siblings, and a parent’s death, the album, which currently resides in an astonishing 13 million homes, was almost unrelentingly downbeat. Nearly every song had some variation on the words tears and cry.
Yet music takes on a context all its own once the populace adopts it, and such was the case with Hootie & the Blowfish. Like the Beatles after John Kennedy was gunned down on a Dallas boulevard, these average guys from South Carolina were the right band at the right time: a tonic for listeners weary of cynical, anguished alterna-rockers, music for those who wanted something a little more comforting and unthreatening. It didn’t matter that Cracked Rear View addressed such sobering matters as racism in the not-so-New South. The modest, anthemic melodies were easy to hum and vaguely familiar; in their videos, the band cavorted like modern-day Monkees. At a time when rock, not to mention the culture itself, seemed angry and out of control, Hootie & the Blowfish became significant simply because they weren’t significant. Imagine being the commercial break during the apocalypse.
Perhaps to counteract that lightweight image, the band heard on Fairweather Johnson sounds brawnier than it did on its predecessor. Once again, violins, mandolins, and organs weave around the quartet, but everything now sounds grander and more sweeping, if not in any sense groundbreaking. As a listening experience, Fairweather is meatier fare than the comparably fussy, Nilla Wafer sound of Cracked Rear View. The lyrics of ”Old Man & Me,” the new album’s first single, read like the plot for one of those Afterschool Specials — the narrator, a senior citizen, teaches Rucker about family values and patriotism — but its molasses-thick guitar lick and pumping piano gallop along like an Allman Brothers track. ”Let It Breathe” is dipped in roadhouse soul, and ”She Crawls Away” has a chest-exploding pride accompanying its sunny-afternoon arrangement.
That energy level, which dominates the album’s first half, eventually flags, and Fairweather Johnson dribbles to a close with two treacly ballads; in one, Rucker laments that ”I struggle with life when I’m lonely.” Despite these fumbles, it’s clear by album’s end that Hootie & the Blowfish have benefited, at least on a musical level, from the leap from clubs to concert halls. If there were such a thing as a workout gym for albums, Fairweather Johnson would be a Gold Card member
The effect on Rucker is equally noticeable, but frustrating. On Cracked Rear View, what set him apart from other male pop stars was his barrelhouse growl: Here was one man who wasn’t afraid to sing and get all emotional about the experience. Taking that approach to its next illogical step, Rucker over-sings throughout Fairweather Johnson, as if he were trying to win over not just the folks inside the arena but the T-shirt hawkers in the parking lot. Braying over the unexpectedly grating electric guitars of ??Be the One,?? Rucker sounds as if he’s having a digital hernia right before our ears. The band tries to lighten up on ??Silly Little Pop Song,?? an attempt at frivolity down to its la-la-la chorus. But with Rucker huffing and puffing grumpy lyrics like ??Are you happy here with me/Are you seeing someone??? the results are like Pavarotti tackling ??Johnny B. Goode.??
To Rucker’s credit, his lyrics don’t play into the band’s golf-club-swinging, beer-drinking image. Addressing racial prejudice once again, in ??Tucker’s Town,?? he tells of working and vacationing in the Bahamas, ??where I can lie for free/And nobody stares at me.?? His love songs are unremittingly bleak, even if they do place an uneasy amount of the blame on the women. (??Look at me when I’m talking to you/Look at me in the eye,?? he grumbles in ??Earth Stopped Cold at Dawn.?? Only the song’s undeniably warm melody and Nanci Griffith’s pristine harmony prevent it from becoming bitter.) Still, many of Rucker’s observations are for naught. At least half the words that tumble from his mouth are slurred and unintelligible, and this from a band whose success relies so heavily on direct, unaffected emotion. What were they thinking?
Ironically, Rucker doesn’t seem that far removed anymore from all those alterna-rockers to whom Hootie are a supposed alternative. He’s filled with hurt, anger, resentment, and emotional scars. The album’s only trace of humor comes in the jokey title song, about faddish sports fans, which lasts all of 50 seconds. Like the leader of some industrial-rock band, Darius Rucker has garbled his words for the sake of — well, who knows what? A bit of street credibility? Fairweather Johnson expands Hootie & the Blowfish’s medium but builds a wall around their message. B