Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Growling Toward Mediocrity: Fairweather Johnson Reintroduces Hootie & The Blowfish As A Boring Band.

The Good: Generally good vocals, Some interesting lyrics
The Bad: Instrumentals are a bit bland, Album sounds somewhat monolithic
The Basics: With a VERY weak "recommend," Hootie & The Blowfish pull off a very average album that is, at its least, different from their debut.

After many years of hearing their radio hits, I have finally started picking up albums by Hootie & The Blowfish, probably as a result of seeing them on the local news this year after they had performed (for a second year) at the New York State Fair. I listened to and enjoyed Cracked Rear View (reviewed here!), so I decided to continue on with their library and I picked up Fairweather Johnson.

While nowhere near as commercially successful as Cracked Rear View, Fairweather Johnson had "Tucker's Town" and "Old Man & Me," which received a decent amount of airplay at the time. Fairweather Johnson seems to have most all of the essential aspects of a noteworthy album, save the spark. This is an album that is remarkably average pop-rock with the net effect of the presentation being to leave the listener in a state of "okay, fine." In other words, there aren't the hooks, the anthems, the strong singles to move the album and speak so directly to the listener and as a result, the overall album is rather average, sounding like . . . well, the sophomore album of a garage band.

In fact, as I continued to write my review, I found myself less and less impressed with the album. It is a perfectly average album with few remarkably lyrics, instrumentals that are bland and lack a single melody that makes a song soar and vocals that are too often mumbled. I didn't hate the album with anything active or loathsome, but after so many spinnings of the disc, while I was reviewing it, I just kept being bored by it.

With fourteen tracks, clocking in at 49:31, Fairweather Johnson is written and performed by the men of Hootie & The Blowfish. The quartet wrote all of the songs, they play most of the instruments heard and Darius Rucker provides the lead vocals for the tracks. The only thing the group does not do is produce the album. Still, it does seem like it is largely their musical vision.

After nine listens to the album, I think the best way to describe the sound of the songs on Fairweather Johnson is to compare them to "Time." On Cracked Rear View, the single "Time," which had Darius Rucker presenting lead vocals that tend to be emotive, but not always articulate, is very much what the songs on this album sound like. Songs like "Tucker's Town" and "She Crawls Away" have virtually the same growling vocals as moments of Rucker's presentation on "Time."

But the songs have similar backing vocals and somewhat generic instrumentals supporting them that "Time" had. Comparatively, Fairweather Johnson is like a collection of stylistically similar, lyrical variations on "Time." This is not to say that the album is bad, but it does become monotonous without anything strongly contrasting to shake up the album. But Fairweather Johnson, more than the debut album, relies on Rucker's vocals and supporting vocals over instrumental melodies to carry the album.

One finds themselves wishing, then, that all of the vocals would be clear. However, on songs like "She Crawls Away," Rucker mumbles and growls when he is not letting his voice be smooth and natural. At points, it sounds like he is singing around marbles. For example, when he sings "How can I say you're needing me now / When I've got a plan / I know you don't understand why my heart is sorry now / I believe / We see her laying with another / She runs around you and then it's like the sun goes down and she crawls / I believe / We see her waiting with another / She runs around me and then it's like the sun goes down and he crawls away again" ("She Crawls Away") it is so garbled that I had to look up the lines to figure out what he was singing, even after multiple listens.

What makes Fairweather Johnson ultimately worth listening to, though, is that some of the songs are interesting enough to enjoy over and over again. For example, "So Strange" is a little musical story with its lines like "It's so hard to breathe right now / Living things without a friend of mine / Air just filling every bit, of every end, of every mind / You thought you could feel / And it's maybe 6 a.m. / And no one wants to be with me / So I'm calling out to someone and something that I don't know so well / Ohh, I'm free / If I can't find the warmth in my summer" The song has a loose, swaying quality to it and it paints a picture that is vivid and intriguing with its lines. Hootie & The Blowfish seems to be masters of the melancholy and even their concept of being free is being dragged down with memories that are oppressive.

Indeed, the lyrics are not bad - even when they are presented in such a murky way - as evidenced by songs like "Honeyscrew." Never a single, the song sings about a monstrous man who has a rather abusive relationship with women. It is almost a musical short story, opening with the lines "Feel me dealing / Holding on to a story just told / About a man who's the life of a funeral / Grabbing on to a woman who's soul / He just stole for a dream he don't believe in / Now she sits and she yells for a smile / "Don't let the sun make me feel lonely" / Oh let me in . . ." ("Honeyscrew"). Lyrically, the story song has a deeply empathetic protagonist who is desperately trying to rescue the woman who is the subject of the song. It's sweet, actually.

It must be hard coming off such a success like Cracked Rear View and my instinct is to go light on Hootie & The Blowfish; the pressure to make a worthy follow-up must have been incredible. Instead of trying to top their debut, though, they seem determined to avoid hooks like the simplicity of crying out "Hold My Hand" or "Let Her Cry!" Lacking that, Fairweather Johnson almost attempts to remake Hootie & the Blowfish as an anonymous light pop-rock band and that lack of distinction is carried through the entire album. At least they don't degenerate into simply singing about themselves.

The best track is "So Strange," the weakest link is "Tootie," which is utterly unmemorable.

For other Artist Of The Month reviews, please visit my reviews of:
Hotter Than July - Stevie Wonder
Seal (2) – Seal
It Ain’t Easy: Essential Recordings - Wilson Pickett


For an organized listing of my music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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