hootie & the blowfish

Retro Review: Hootie & the Blowfish — Cracked Rear View

In my continuing look at older albums, next up is Hootie & the Blowfish.

I was managing a restaurant in 1994 when Cracked Rear View came out and a true blue rock and roll guy, snobbishly ensconced in grunge. From where I stood, I was the purveyor of musical taste for the restaurant. And no one’s taste was as good as mine. Yep. I was a snob.

So when one of the waiters came up to me to tell me about this band from South Carolina, I was skeptical. After a fair amount of cajoling from him, and too much snark from me, I put the CD in.

Cracked Rear View kicked in with “Hannah Jane” and I was modestly surprised. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t original. But in an era of grunge rock and so much angry sounding music, it was refreshing.

I looked at the back of the jewel box and saw it was produced by Don Gehman. He had produced the 80’s string of John Mellencamp’s biggest (and arguably his best) albums, American Fool, Uh-Huh, Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee. He also produced the pivotal R.E.M. album, Life’s Rich Pageant. Seeing his name, my defensive ears dropped. . . so did my attitude.

Track two, “Hold My Hand”, begins benignly enough but then quickly grows into an anthem. “Okay,” I thought, “I’m interested.” And what an anthem it became.

The one, two, three punch of “Hold My Hand”, “Let Her Cry” and “Only Wanna Be With You” is not just 14:00 of sublime music, it’s also album sequencing brilliance. After the first five songs, you’re either in or you’re out.

As of May 2018, 21 million people were in. Cracked Rear View is the 19th best selling album of all time.

As I was looking at the jewel box insert I noticed Darius Rucker. Seeing a black guy in a rock band wasn’t that unusual. It just wasn’t the norm. Listening to the album, conspicuously absent is any sort of mention of race. Until track seven, “Drowning”; here the band unleashes its angriest song, musically and lyrically. I’d like to be able to say that 25 years on the lyrics aren’t as powerful. I can’t say that:

Why must we hate one another
When the people in the church
They tell me you’re my brother
You don’t walk like me, I said that
You don’t talk like me, saying
Go back to Africa
I just don’t understand

And that voice. Rucker’s voice is as distinctive as any voice in music. It wasn’t in 1994. However, his voice was the antithesis of, and the antidote to, the anger of Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor and Courtney Love, et al.

Interestingly, there is only one degree of separation between Hootie & the Blowfish and the Seattle grunge sound. Journalist turned Atlantic Records A&R guy, Tim Sommer, signed Hootie & the Blowfish in 1993.

However, Sommer’s first big A&R score was Seattle’s The Gits, fronted by Mia Zapata. Her tragic murder in 1993, just four days after his handshake deal with the band left the city confused, the scene crippled and Sommer crushed. Read about Sommer’s road to Hootie here (it’s worth it).

The album chugs along and if you’ve made it to track eight, “Time”, you’re invested. “Time” follows “Drowning” and thematically it makes sense (again, that sequencing). It remains my favorite song on the record. It’s taught sound and lyrics left me gleefully tapping on my steering wheel and singing along more times than I can remember.

The last three songs aren’t phoned in, but you can hear that the energy of the album has been exorcised. “Not Even the Trees”, “Goodbye” and “Motherless Child” help Cracked Rear View glide across the finish line. The songs serve as the perfect ballast for the album.

Now look, don’t get me wrong, by the middle of 1995 I wanted to strangle anyone who played Hootie & the Blowfish. There was a period of time where there was no escaping the band. To say they were ubiquitous would be an understatement.

Yes, I still liked the album, but it had been played out. For me, the band’s sound and earnest attention to normalcy, however real, had run its course. In a word, it was overkill. . . through no fault of their own.

The band followed up Cracked Rear View with Fairweather Johnson in 1996. Basically, the same record. Not a dig, Pearl Jam’s Vs. is the same album as Ten, essentially. Unfortunately, when your first album is as big as Cracked was, any follow-up is doomed and will be viewed as a disappointment. Such was the case for Fairweather Johnson as well as the bands’ subsequent output.

Hootie & the Blowfish went on hiatus around 2008, reuniting a few times annually for some charity shows. In 2015, they did a one-off performance in the lead up to David Letterman’s retirement. But they didn’t record anything and didn’t tour.

In honor of its silver anniversary, the band is currently on tour celebrating Cracked Rear View and is slated to release a new album of originals in November of 2019.

So, how does Cracked Rear View sound 25 years on? Just like your favorite pair of jeans or Chuck Taylor’s won’t go out of style, neither will this album. It’s the type of album you’re always happy to return to. You know the songs and they still sound just as great as they did then. Thematically, the songs about love and heartache still resonate.

No, there isn’t anything terribly new or original about Cracked Rear View. But that isn’t a crime. There’s nothing new or original about beat-up jeans or Chuck Taylor’s either. Some things can transcend the era in which they come from.

Hootie & the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View transcends the 1990’s rock landscape.

Cracked Rear View was a damn fine album then, it still is today and it will be tomorrow.