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The secret joys of regular guys

[Originally published 1995 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

We all have our likes and dislikes, and that's fine, but I for one can't abide musical snobbery. Is Hole any worse a band for being popular? Did R.E.M. sell out when money and fame rolled in by the kiloton? Conversely, why has success conferred on Bon Jovi and Michael Bolton the status of auteur? The fact is that popularity and success only occasionally have any relevance to artistic worth. Make up your own minds about the bands and the singers you like, but don't be swayed by sales figures or radio airplay or alleged hipness - or by the herd mentality commonly found in queer musical circles.

Whew. Now that I've gotten that out of my system, let me heartily recommend one of the most popular, dead-conventional bands extant, an American quartet with the stupidest name in the history of pop music: Hootie & the Blowfish. No ground whatsoever is broken on Cracked Rear View, their megasuccess début LP (4.5 mil and counting). They dress like slobs. They play golf without embarrassment. These cats are regular guys to the max. But while Hootie is, on the surface, a simple gospel-blues-rock band, it's a band that can boast of fluency in the brute force and the layered nuance of the guitar, the basso profundo of the male voice and the tremors of the bereft heart.

To explain this, a psychology theory that may well bore the Doc Martens off dyke readers (apologies in advance). For some fags, our linkage with all things male predisposes us to a deep-seated emotional reaction to deep male voices; they act for us as the sirens of the modern age for the minority of us brave enough to stick up for rock & roll music. Darius Rucker of the band with the silly name has a voice that lures us the way a MAC cosmetics counter draws transvestites.

The band's July 3 Toronto appearance, playing before a Molson Amphitheatre overrun by the frosted hairdos and acid-wash jean jackets and the Vuarnet T-shirts and sandals that are the heterosexualist summer uniform, was rather a disappointment, as many live shows are. So stick to the album. Skip song two, the overtly radio-friendly unit-shifter "Hold My Hand." Next is "Let Her Cry," an effective conventional ballad that upsets the cock-rock apple cart by mixing gender-reversed lyrics (don't be surprised; this is the '90s) with a video quite subtly featuring actual dykes (ditto). Let her cry, indeed. (For extra credit, kids, locate the pronouns in "Let Her Cry" that do not work in gender reversal and make sense only in a same-sex context.)

"Only Wanna Be with You" and "Running from an Angel" showcase Rucker's finesse with the surging rock number – 'tis tunage for cruisin' the boulevard in a 1960s Mustang convertible, or at least for a sashay to Loblaws wearing a loud Walkperson. But watch your back, dear reader. Thus disarmed by Hootie's gutsiness and swagger, you are but putty in Rucker's hands, and the remainder of the album will surely see you decay into sniffles, a constricted throat, and sepiatoned reminiscences of all your dead friends, relatives, and lovers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lyrical source of this lachrymal wellspring is the death of Rucker's own mother; while I wonder how long he'll be able to milk this tragedy in successive world tours and TV appearances (it's already taking on overtones of schtick), on the album there's no denying that Rucker eloquently conjures the open-ended frustration and sorrow of loved ones' passing.

The key to the success of Hootie in bar-band mode and as chronicler of human sorrow is, ironically, the same thing – the authority, vigor, and presence of Rucker's voice, which, with a deft change of orchestration and a darker cast to the lyrics, transforms itself from an instrument of exhilaration to one of lamentation. And he does this without a Mariah Carey-esque multi-octave range or a Bernie Taupin-esque ghostwriter. Rucker's signal flaw (and not a make-or-break one) is his tendency to growl through words rather than articulating them, bulldozing consonants left and right.

By the album's final full song, "Not Even the Trees," anyone with greater life experience than a newborn kitten and a greater emotional range than said kitten will be left awestruck and struck dumb, wondering how it is that such a well-trod path could lead to such riches.

Album number two comes out in February. Mark your Day-Timers.

POSTSCRIPT: Soon after this review was published in hardcopy, Hootie & the Blowfish took advantage of the latest in promotional technologies, the online chat, on Compu$erve. The arrogance and flippance of Darius Rucker in responding to well-meaning questions from fans were nothing short of scandalous, particularly since his group had evolved from Southern nobodies into multimillionaires within a single year thanks to those fans. Funny how Rucker, who conned even me into thinking he's just an ordinary slob with the winningest deep voice since Rick Astley, couldn't muster a modicum of grace in addressing his fans. I'm sure that superimportant rock critics out there (Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, this means you), who have been waging an anti-Hootie vendetta since Day 1, will smirk and mutter "I told you so." Nay. The music is still virtuous; it's the performers I hate.

Don't think I'll be paying much attention to the quartet's new album Fairweather Johynson. I doubt they'll notice.