I never hated Hootie & The Blowfish.
For those who were fortunate to catch them live in their early, formative years, you left their shows impressed. Even though they hadn’t released anything but one or two self-released EPs, they took to the stage and played roots-rock and college rock in such a powerful way, you’d have thought they were already a seasoned band with albums and hits under their belt. Not only were their originals superb, they also threw in a few oddball, didn’t-see-THAT-coming covers. (At the show I witnessed, I seem to recall them covering Gin Blossoms, Bel Biv Devoe, Bob Dylan, and Suzanne Vega, but I confess that my memory may be a little fuzzy.) Comparisons to early R.E.M. were not only apt, but impossible to deny. I left a show that was relatively small (a few hundred people), thinking I’d just been rocked hard by an amazing arena rock band.
Yet when they released their debut album, 1994’s cracked rear view, the uninitiated (which was most anyone outside of the southeastern US) thought they were not only a new band, but worse still, a completely manufactured, corporate rock group carefully designed to be successful with safe, unassuming music that stood in stark opposition to the loud nihilistic “grunge” of the time. That they were anathema to the sound of the time is unquestionable—in fact, that they didn’t sound like the music of the era was one of the main reasons Atlantic A&R rep Tim Sommer signed them.
But Sommer heard something, and when you hear the tracks from the self-released cassette demo from 1990, or the super-rare self-released Kootchypop EP, or the Time demo, you can hear it, too. The rough versions of “Let Her Cry,” “Only Wanna Be With You,” “Time,” and “Hold My Hand” might be lacking in studio polish, but they aren’t lesser because of it. Perhaps it’s hindsight, considering the ubiquity they would soon obtain, but these early versions positively sparkle. Sommer was right to get excited by these recordings, even if their label seemed to balk at the last minute and didn’t have any expectations for the little South Carolina band’s first record.
Listening to cracked rear view 25 years later, the record suffers somewhat from its success. It’s loaded with four amazing songs, ubiquitous radio hits that cast a long shadow over the album tracks, making the album feel less like a debut record and more like a greatest hits package. That doesn’t mean the songs are of lesser quality, because they aren’t; the upbeat album opener “Hannah Jane” was released as a European single, while the rocker “Drowning” was released to radio as the band’s fifth single, but when it didn’t perform well, a commercial release was scrapped. (The album would have an ad hoc fifth hit single from the record, a cover of Canadian rockers 54-40’s “I Go Blind,” which was left off the album as it was (wisely) decided to only feature original compositions; the song was released on the soundtrack to Friends—and from personal retail experience, fans were unhappy this cover wasn’t included on the record!)
cracked rear view is the rare album where any of its songs could have been released as singles and probably would have been equally as successful. Burnout is perhaps the only reason “Drowning” didn’t fare well, and understandably so. But the album tracks offer up a different side of the band, being more acoustic-minded and ballad-oriented, with frontman Darius Rucker’s soulful rock style adding a poignancy and style not heard on the radio hits, especially on the emotional “Not Even The Trees” and “I’m Going Home.” If there’s a weak moment—and that term is used quite lightly—it would be “Running From An Angel,” which was a holdover from their early releases, and simply doesn’t quite have the power of its fellow songs. The three studio b-sides, though, could have been a-sides; a cover of Radney Foster’s “Fine Line” sounds like an original, while “Where Were You” and “Almost Home” are hidden jewels in the band’s catalogue. The sole unreleased track from the sessions, “All That I Believe,” is enjoyable, but it’s easy to understand why the song was shelved; it simply sounds too similar to the album’s stronger hits.
The real treat for this boxed set is the third disc, a live performance from a Pittsburg club show recorded by Atlantic in February 1995 and mined for the band’s many international singles. If one needed evidence of the band being a real group and not a corporate exercise, it’s here; they play an amazing set that features all of cracked rear view, a handful of older, pre-album tracks, and a number of covers that serve as a Rosetta Stone for those paying attention—their takes on Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” aren’t that surprising, but the choice of The Beatles’ “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” is an odd one, one that shows that the “corporate creation” really knew their musical history. What makes the live show such a delight is knowing that they were at a precipice; the club era was now over, the years of hard work had paid off, and they were on their way to becoming superstars. When I hear people decrying the band, I simply say that they were who they were well before they became who we know them to be, and this gig wonderfully captures that. cracked rear view is the sound of a band becoming the band they believed they were.
To say cracked rear view exceeded expectations is an understatement; even the most optimistic fan wouldn’t have guessed it would have sold twenty-one million copies. They would continue on for the rest of the decade, and while nothing they released reached the sales heights of their first time out of the gate, the quality of the material never suffered. They went on hiatus a few years ago, but have recently come out of retirement, and the songs they’ve released have been nothing short of welcome. Even though detractors hated them for their success and ubiquity, the high quality of their music cannot be denied, and even though you might have sickened of them being on the radio all the time in 1994 and 1995, cracked rear view hasn’t lost its appeal or its charm, and is easily one of the best albums of the decade.
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