Hootie's new release shows band's growth Album review: After the phenomenally successful 'Cracked Rear View,' the Blowfish move forward with 'Fairweather Johnson.'

April 23, 1996|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's not easy to be objective about Hootie & the Blowfish.

By the time the band's debut album, "Cracked Rear View," hit the 13 million mark, pop fans were either for 'em or ag'in 'em. Those who sided with the 13 million hailed Hootie as the best new band in years, while those opposed believed the Blowfish represented everything that was wrong with rock today. How the music sounded was almost beside the point.

So it may be overly optimistic to suggest that "Fairweather Johnson" (Atlantic 82886, arriving in stores today) is the sort of album that could seriously change people's minds about this band. After all, anyone who would object to Hootiemania purely on principle is certainly not going to be swayed by anything so minor as the music itself.

But those willing to put aside their prejudices and listen are in for a pleasant surprise. Because instead of simply reiterating the most commercial aspects of its multi-platinum predecessor, "Fairweather Johnson" finds the Blowfish swimming confidently into deeper waters.

It isn't just that the subject matter has changed, moving from songs of heartbreak and romance to big issues like death and parenthood; the band's sound has matured as well. Where "Cracked Rear View" stressed the band's debt to post-R.E.M. Southern rock, "Fairweather Johnson" shows a much broader range of influences, from the Beatlesque chord changes of "Sad Caper" to the neo-folkie melancholy of "Earth Stopped Cold." Some of this newfound breadth can be chalked up to the arrangements. In addition to contributions from tour guitarist Peter Holsapple and keyboardist John Nau, the album boasts guest vocals by Nanci Griffith as well as Toad the Wet Sprocket's Dean Dinning and Glen Phillips, and between the fattened harmonies and extra instrumentation, there's an unexpected majesty to the sound of "Tucker's Town" and "So Strange."

There's also quite a lot of stylistic ground covered in these songs. Between the anguished vocal and fevered strum of "Be the One," the gentle, Caribbean-inflected pulse of "She Crawls," and arch, new-wavy formalism of "Silly Little Pop Song," the album displays enough range to keep the songs seeming fresh even after they've been replayed a dozen times. Yet there's nothing ostentatious or glib about that sense of musical variety, for no matter how far afield the treatments may wander, the songs still sound 100 percent Hootie.

A lot of that has to do with Darius Rucker, the gruff-voiced singer many listeners erroneously believe is Hootie. Although he's hardly the most dazzling vocalist in pop music today, his sound is definitely unmistakable. While some of that has to do with the way his rough-hewn edges offer echoes of Otis Redding, Michael Stipe and Bruce Springsteen, what ultimately holds the listener's attention isn't the weight or power of his voice, but its ability to make even the most exuberant melodies seem personal and introspective.

This personal side to his sound is certainly at work in "She Crawls," which makes the wonder and bemusement of a proud papa seem not the slightest bit cloying, and in the tart, twangy balladry of "Tootie," which boasts the album's most memorably melancholy chorus. But it's also at the heart of the driving, Steve Winwood-ish "Old Man & Me" -- so much so that this fable of aged wisdom and youthful impetuosity almost comes across as confessional songwriting.

Between Rucker's skill at drawing listeners in and the band's ability to lift them up, "Fairweather Johnson" makes it easy to understand how Hootie got so big so fast. But because it also reveals the musical strengths beneath that market share, the album makes it clear that there's more to this band than its fan base.

They're back

To hear excerpts from Hootie & the Blowfish's new release, "Fairweather Johnson," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6174. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

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