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Ethan Hill

Silly Little Pop Singers: Hootie & the Blowfish

On 'Fairweather Johnson,' the Blowfish prove that their chart-topping mediocrity was no fluke

By Gina Arnold

HOOTIE & THE BLOWFISH have been the official whipping boys of the mainstream press ever since their debut album, Cracked Rear View, outstripped its natural place in the marketplace by selling 13 million copies worldwide.

Under ordinary circumstances, a band as bland as Hootie would probably have been ignored. But those numbers forced critics to sit up and take notice, and their subsequent judgment regarding the South Carolina quartet has been unbelievably harsh. They range in vigor from comments that merely dismiss the group as being forgettably banal to ones claiming that their very existence proves the decline of Western civilization.

In fact, songs like "Hold My Hand" and "Let Her Cry" were merely your proverbial ultracatchy singles--harmless, melodious and summery throwbacks to the era when AM radio chimed some songs round the clock, regardless of the style, sound or color of the band in question. But one reason critics may have beaten their collective breast so hard about the surprising success of Hootie & the Blowfish is that the band first achieved popularity through TV, on David Letterman's show.

In late 1994, a few months after the release of Cracked Rear View, Letterman plugged the then-unknown act repeatedly, and it's hard to escape the realization that his rather uninformed opinion made more impact than any amount of radio or MTV airplay--and certainly more than any critic's poor review. Thus, Hootie & the Blowfish are anathema to snubbed rock critters worldwide, who see them as the final proof of the ignorance of the American public. (To date, the band has gone over rather badly in Europe.)

But what's really notable about Hootie--besides the dumb name and phenomenal sales--is the group's supremely indefinable sound and artistic mediocrity. Hootie & the Blowfish are not Nirvanabes, like STP, Bush and various other supersuccessful acts; nor are they Britpoppers, new country or some other easily categorized slot in music.

A forgiving rock critic could certainly file Hootie in the relatively recent pigeonhole "No Depression"--a term used to describe new American roots-rock. But more often than not, they are described as cozy, bland, derivative and passionless. One critic termed them the "Lite beer" of rock & roll, i.e., lacking in all emotional sustenance and artistic nutrients.

This kind of rancor is odd, given that Hootie's touchstone bands tend to be critically beloved outfits like R.E.M., Freedy Johnston and the Jayhawks, minus the haunting vocal talents of the Jayhawks' Marc Olson, the lyric-writing talent of Johnston and the originality of R.E.M.

The band itself cites a diverse set of respectable influences and sources, including such well-received artists as the Jordanaires, Patsy Cline and Taj Mahal, and although Hootie's music sounds nothing like those acts, it does draw parallels to giant-selling pure pop hits of the early '70s, acts like Terry Gross, Orleans and B.J. Thomas. On their just-released new album, Fairweather Johnson (Atlantic), the song "Sad Caper" sounds a bit like a Neil Diamond number, while "Silly Little Pop Song," with its intentionally Beatles-esque "la-la-la" chorus, has just enough "Hold My Hand"-style harmonies to pass muster.

As bands go, Hootie doesn't have particularly bad taste in collaborators: the last album featured a guest spot by David Crosby. The new album showcases a joint effort with Toad the Wet Sprocket as well as a duet with country singer Nanci Griffith. But this is another case of the band being almost too eclectic for its own good. After all, besides Griffith having a nice voice, what on earth does her artistic vision have to do with Hootie & the Blowfish?

Answer: nothing; nor does R.E.M. And yet, in the past, the band has drafted not one, but two R.E.M. producers (Don Dixon did their third independent album, Kootchypop, and Don Gehman did Cracked Rear View and the new one). Even more interestingly, for its live shows the band has recently begun using the services of Peter Holsapple, former R.E.M. sideman and founder of the legendary Chapel Hill band the dB's.

Decisions like these make Hootie seem misguided, perhaps--but clearly, the band's heart is in the right place. So why all the negativity? Mediocrity abounds in music, as it does in life. The Blowfish's form of it is no more noxious than that of a million other bands. And yet, by their very blandness, they seem to have become a mirror into which critics (and fans) can pour their frustrations with the current state of rock.

It would probably be going too far to claim that all this bad press has its roots in a peculiar kind of racism. But it is true that the sight of lead singer Darius Rucker playing nonblack music--as well as the sight of him playing golf--has offended some people more than, say, the sight of white artists like Dave Matthews or Blues Traveler playing essentially the same type of schlock. Maybe because so much black music over the years has been so excellent and beloved, Americans tend to expect black musicians to be a lot better than white ones.

ALAS, ALTHOUGH one would dearly like to defend Hootie from the slings and arrows of elitist rock critics, a listen to Fairweather Johnson, which was recorded in Marin County last October--makes such a task quite difficult. (Although it is only the band's second major-label album, Fairweather Johnson is actually its fifth LP.) Musically, no one song grabs a hook and sticks with it; lyrically, the numbers are even more difficult to stick with. There's just no there there, listen as one might. Rucker's big rich voice goes nowhere on songs like "So Strange" and "Be the One"; it's melodramatic, but never evocative.

The title cut is symptomatic of Hootie's confusion. A recent review in Newsweek jokingly claims that the album's name is a bit of a dirty joke ("Johnson" is old-fashioned black slang for penis), but although that's a stretch, it is a peculiar choice. The character referred to in the song "Fairweather Johnson" is one of those fair-weather fans who only likes a sports team when it's winning, then switches allegiances to the next winning team--namely, a disloyal person.

Why name your album after such an unadmirable type? Are those the kind of people Hootie's members wish to attract to their band or sees itself attracting--or by singing this ditty are they making fun of them or praising them or what?

It's impossible to tell, and to be fair, I doubt whether the members of Hootie & the Blowfish have thought about that at all. But it's just this type of unawareness that makes Fairweather Johnson so devoid of character and charm. Most American followers of the band claim not to pay attention to its lyrics, but the emptiness of these songs will probably defy even the least-lyric-oriented fair-weather fan from really warming up to the album.

Hootie & the Blowfish's mediocrity has finally caught up with them. They've long since risen to the level of their own incompetence, and can certainly go no further.

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro

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