Friday, January 2, 2015

THE GREATEST CDS OF ALL-TIME: “Cracked Rear View” (1994) by Hootie and the Blowfish

It was the album that killed grunge … and for that, we should all be eternally thankful. 

When talk of the "definitive" CD of the 1990s arises, the usual suspects rear their heads. Odds are, you’ll hear albums like “Nevermind,” “OK Computer” and “The Chronic” get dropped, and if you’re friends with assholes, maybe even “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” or, god help you, something by Tori freaking Amos.

To me, though, there is only one album that deserves mention as the 1990s musical offering. Forget your grunge rock and G-funk and techno-electro gobbledygook, when I think Clinton Era music, I automatically think of one CD … “Cracked Rear View” by Hootie and the Blowfish.

Alike the proverbial (or is it figurative -- I get confused sometimes) Dark Knight, Hootie and the Blowfish were not the pop-rock sensation we wanted as a collective culture, but by golly, they were the pop-rock sensation we all deserved.

Hootie was the logical -- if not outright natural -- follow-up to Nirvana. Released just a few months after Kurt Cobain recorded his final single (it was mind blowing, I tell you what), “Cracked Rear View” is certainly a symbolic record, if absolutely nothing else. It represents the other side of the pop cultural pantheon, the domain of the thirty-something, married with kids demographic, as opposed to the depressed teenager and twenty-something nihilist-consumer drone class. After three solid years of smelly, disheveled people in flannel screaming about heroin and how much their parents sucked, as a society, we needed something a tad more adult to satiate our musical palates.

If I am not mistaken, “Cracked Rear View” was one of the very first compact discs I ever purchased. Heck, it may have even been the very first. I remember listening to the damn thing from “Hannah Jane” to “Goodbye” without skipping a single track for close to a year straight -- something I never was able to do with contemporary records like “Dookie” and whatever Stone Temple Pilots was shatting out around that time.

Alas, pop culture, the fickle beast it is, had turned Hootie and the Blowfish into a punch line by 1996, and after Bob Dole became politically irrelevant, I don’t think I so much as touched my disc for close to 15 years. Despite being one of the best-selling records in history, “Cracked Rear View” is largely considered a laughable anachronism, routinely lumped alongside such regrettable 1990s antiquities as “La Macarena” and New Kids on the Block. By the time Darius Rucker had reduced himself to singing Burger King jingles, the cultural consensus was clear; Hootie was nothing more than a fluke, a flash-in-the-pan mass-marketed misstep that was the right act at just the right time -- scornful criticism that, just as appropriately, could be -- yet never is -- used to describe corporate-manufactured grunge groups like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.

Despite joining the anti-Hootie bandwagon like all of the other folks who need Rolling Stone to tell them what to think about things, I had always -- if not begrudgingly -- enjoyed whenever “Let Her Cry” or “Only Wanna Be With You” popped up on the radio. Out of the blue a few years back, I decided to listen to “Cracked Rear View” in its entirety, and honestly, I was agog at what I heard. That 47-minute odyssey was the very panacea I had been looking for, having grown weary (and downright irritated) by the same-old, same-old Jack White / Animal Collective / Black Keys pseudo revivalist electro rock bullshit that’s been shoved down our throats for the last decade.

“Cracked Rear View,” simply put, was the slow-rock, adult-contemporary, semi-folk magnum opus that overrated groups like Dave Matthews Band and the Alabama Shakes could never dream about producing. As a pop-rock offering, it was, and still is, better than anything Bruce Springsteen’s draft-dodging ass has put out since the Carter Administration and it utterly annihilates the entire U2 discography before it even makes it to the second track. Not only is this a legitimately great album, it’s one of the best albums, in any genre, to come out during the decade.

Without question, “Hannah Jane” is one of the 10 best opening tracks in music history, an instant toe-tapper that evokes equal amounts of wishy-washy sentimentality and stomach-buckling regret. Lyrically, it’s also a complete “fuck you” to the tried-and-true Nirvana template, eschewing the choppy refrigerator magnet poetry prose for an actual narrative. While Kurt Cobain was yelping Mad Libs about albinos and mosquitoes, Darius Rucker was crafting a soft and sweet -- yet still heart wrenching -- ditty about watching your kids grow up in front of you. It is a mature, staid and instantly relatable tune for the over-30 demographic, that at a brief 3:30 in length, never outstays its welcome.

“Hold My Hand,” which I believe was the first single from the album, was most folks’ introduction to the band. Stylistically, it’s about as far away from Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails that you could get -- a simple, tuned down bridge, with lyrics that were clearly decipherable as opposed to sounding like the cryptic ramblings of a mental patient. It might be a bit bubbly, but it’s certainly energetic and its hard to not feel a smile stretching upon your lips when Rucker coos “I just want to love you, the best that I can.” At a time when most rock radio singles were paeans to suicide, this light and frothy little love song was actually counterculture … and it’s far and away the best song titled “Hold My Hand,” by a gaping margin.

Showing the band’s diversity and dexterity, “Let Her Cry” is easily one of the ten best country ballads of the decade. It’s the antithesis of “Hold My Hand,” a longing, painful narrative about a man in a rocky relationship with a woman who it is implied -- but never contextually stated -- has a drug addiction of some kind. The song’s ultimate moment -- when following a breakdown, Rucker woefully sings “last night I tried to be, cried so much I could now believe, she was the same girl I feel in love with long ago” -- has the emotional firepower that Eddie Vedder could only fantasize about.

And after one of the most draining ballads ever recorded, the band turns things around 180 and socks us with the upbeat “Only Wanna’ Be With You,” which is probably the group’s most iconic recording. With self-mocking, semi-macho lyrics like “I’m such a baby ‘cause the Dolphins make me cry,” the track is pretty much the best song Huey Lewis and the News never recorded. Displaying an almost Springsteenian lyrical pattern, the song makes several direct nods to Bob Dylan’s better works, resulting in an almost self-reflexive pop-love-song that’s fluttery to the point of almost sounding sardonic. Take note, hipsters -- this song is how you do ironic without sounding like a blubbering, insincere dildo.

To give you an idea of how stacked this album is, we have to wait until almost the 20 minute mark of the record before we get to a song that didn’t receive heavy airplay back in the day. “Running From An Angel,” structurally, feels sort of like a Dave Matthews Band track, except, you know, good. It’s also one of the most lyrically intriguing songs on “Cracked Rear View,” with the speaker of the song weighing conflicted feelings about his adulterous other of significance. At times light as a feather and at others, as caustic as battery acid, this song has all the pleasing inconsistency of the Pixies’ finest, and without all of that annoying fluctuations in volume, either.

“I’m Goin' Home” is just a great, electric-folk ballad about saying goodbye to your mother. It’s certainly sad, but at the same time, reassuring and comforting -- in essence, the kind of music that was about as atypical as it got  for a mainstream act circa 1994. It’s a quaint, sensitive, nostalgic song about confronting the loss of a loved one -- the sort of straight-forward, in-tune with reality material that grown-ups can really relate to, and the sort of unpretentious humanistic fare the Offsprings and Candleboxes of the world just aren’t capable of approaching, let alone translating into enjoyable music.

"Drowning" is probably the most abrasive track on the entire album, with Rucker dropping the word "shit" and making a reference to confederate flags within the first ten seconds of the song. It's definitely the fastest tune on the album, and the only track that really approaches anything resembling "political" territory. Essentially, it's a song about modern day racism, with Rucker addressing the ignorance of those who wish he'd "go back to Africa" -- which is actually a direct lyric from the song, if you can believe it. As aggressive as the song gets at points, it's ultimately a tune about brotherhood and the futility of prejudice, and as such, has a pretty positive message despite the undercurrent of more than understandable anger belying it.

For my money, "Time" is probably the best song on the entire album, and that's saying something. This is just a simple, tuned down song that's equal parts nostalgic and melancholic, an almost perfect mixture of beautiful and haunting. I consider this song better than anything Bob Dylan ever recorded, and probably in the same league as undisputed masterpieces like "Boys of Summer" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town" as superlative musical odes to the trauma of reflecting on yesteryear's formerly wistful recollections. This isn't just a damn great song, this is a damn great work of prose and a tune that's just as powerful today -- if not even more so -- than it was 20 years prior.

"Look Away" is another great, tragic love ballad. It's similar in lyrical content to "Let Her Cry," although the song structure is totally different. In terms of composition, it's probably the simplest song on the album, but that's not a slight against the track at all. At barely three minutes long, it's very wispy and floaty, and seems to flutter away before you know it.

"Not Even the Trees" is a slower, narrative-driven track that almost feels like a country song. It's a very introspective tune about loneliness, regret and longing, and while Rucker never really identifies any specifics, the listener can certainly pick up on the very real pain that inspired the track. Like so many songs on "Cracked Rear View," it's so light and airy, like a calm August gust that caresses the hair on your neck and swirls back into the sky. It's warm, and reassuring, but it's fleeting nature has an undeniably chilling effect, as well.

The song's closer, "Goodbye," is the only piano-drive track on the album, and thematically, it fits right in with songs like "Time" and "Not Even the Trees." Lyrically and structurally, it reminds me quite a bit of Matthew Sweet's "Time Capsule," which is easily one of my favorite songs ever, and Rucker really gets to show off his chops here. It's a tad lugubrious, but it's still beautiful, and as soon as the church organs kick in at the end, the goose pimples are all but unavoidable. And the album concludes with a minute long snippet of the traditional ballad "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," which considering the album's recurring themes of loss and abandonment, is a more than fitting way to conclude the record.

Needless to say, "Cracked Rear View" is a fantastic little album, and a bygone '90s "relic" that actually sounds fresher and more sincere than most of the records from the era that are ceaselessly praised by self-described intellectuals and artistes.

This album is stripped down roots rock done right sans a single unworthy track. At a little under 50 minutes, nothing on the record is too long or too brief, and you can easily find yourself jamming through the whole thing without skipping any of the songs. It's not an album for all tastes (meaning, those of you into shitty bands won't like it), but for those who can appreciate music that doesn't pride itself on being excessively garish, boisterous and self-important, I think "Cracked Rear View" will quickly become one of your new favorite records.

Sadly, they just don't make this kind of music anymore -- sensitive, honest and refreshingly unpretentious ballads about death, love, friendship, and the often painful pastime of reflecting on what once was. Never at any point in the album do the lyrics sound syrupy or whiny, and you have to give the rest of the band -- that's Mark Bryan, Dean Felber and Jim "Soni" Sonefeld, if you were wondering -- all the credit in the world for not going overboard with their solos. In fact, the entire album has a solid, almost muted rhythm section, which actually enhances Rucker's soulful melodies.

As a decent band without any longings for overproduced, overwrought, and pseudo-political music, it's no surprise that Hootie's popularity was not long for this world. They just lacked the showiness and pretentiousness that mainstream record labels wanted, and since the music was more targeted towards thirty-somethings and middle-aged folks who pay taxes, you can kinda' figure it out for yourself why the Viacom Complex quickly turned its eyes towards stupider, shallower acts that had more resonance with the teenage dipshit demographic.

"Cracked Rear View" was the undisputed masterwork of a band that deserved so much more. They, if ever so briefly, rescued popular music from the clutches of anti-depressant rock and gave us tunes that actually resembled the soulful pop-rock ditties of yore. For a couple of months at least, Hootie's unique brand of ESPN-rock gave the masses something to cheer about -- mature music, for mature listeners, with mature tastes.

No wonder their kind has been relegated to the aberrant soft-rock radio appearance. After all, who among us today can even stomach the thought of music porting about genuine sentiments instead of grandiose buffoonery and celebratory apathy?

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