Recordings

Editor's note: Chicago Sun-Times Pop Music Editor Jim DeRogatis was hired as a senior editor at Rolling Stone last fall as part of a team brought in to improve the magazine's coverage of alternative rock music. But DeRogatis clashed with Editor Jann Wenner over a negative review of Hootie and the Blowfish's Fairweather Johnson. Wenner spiked the review and commissioned a positive one. DeRogatis was fired a few weeks later after he was quoted taking a shot at Wenner in a newspaper article. ("I think he's just a fan of bands which sell eight and a half million copies.") The firing received national attention and set off a debate in the music industry about the integrity of the magazine's review section. What follows is DeRogatis' original review, published for the first time.

Hootie and the Blowfish
Fairweather Johnson
(Atlantic)

With SoundScan-certified sales of 8.5 million for its Atlantic debut, Cracked Rear View, the humble South Carolina bar band Hootie and the Blowfish hit that strata of hyperpopularity where people who never buy records bought the record. But whether or not Fairweather Johnson ever meets those chart accomplishments -- and to date, it ain't even coming close -- it is certainly its predecessor's artistic equal. Which is to say it's an album full of what Hootie themselves call "silly little pop songs" -- no more, no less.

Tunes such as "Be the One," "Honeyscrew," and "Tucker Town" (which was inspired by a band vacation to Bermuda) don't vary much from the formula of Hootie hits like "Hold My Hand" and "Only Wanna Be With You." There are insidious hooks aplenty and hints of Stax/Volt soulfulness courtesy of the occasional Hammond organ and Darius Rucker's pleasingly gruff vocals (think Eddie Vedder imitating Otis Redding). All of the songs overflow with generic jangly guitars that evoke denatured versions of edgier Southern popsters like R.E.M. and the dB's, whose Peter Holsapple is reduced by the need for health insurance to serving as fifth Hootie on organ, piano, and accordion.

These comfy, cozy sounds -- the musical equivalent of Mom's chocolate chip cookies and a big glass of milk -- are paired with lyrics that reek of Hallmark-card sentimentality. "I thought about you for a long, long time/ I wrote about you, but the words don't seem to rhyme/ Now you're lying near/ But my heart still beats for you," Rucker sings in the weepy ballad "Tootie." Are these the sweet nothings of a bunch of regular Joes struggling to express their romantic feelings, or the trite cliches of hack songwriters who just wanna get laid? It would be easier to believe the former if the band hadn't chosen sophomoric sex jokes worthy of Beavis and Butt-head for their last three album titles (Kootchypop, Cracked Rear View, Fairweather Johnson).

To these ears, Hootie is the blandest extreme of a wave of bands for whom blame can be placed squarely on the Grateful Dead. The Spin Doctors, the Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, and most of the other "baby Dead" or jam bands try to uphold the Dead's ideals of exploring diverse musical genres like jazz, bluegrass, and world beat from a rock perspective, as well as transcending the everyday through a combination of hallucinogens, music, and community. Hootie doesn't even attempt the first (though they do stretch things out a bit live), and they only succeed at the second if you consider Bud Light a psychedelic drug.

But the connection to the Dead is there in a recording style that reduces American Beauty and Workingman's Dead to their lowest common denominators: a down-home hippie folksiness, a lilting melodic approach, and, of course, that lazy, elastic groove. Hootie music never rocks, and you certainly can't dance to it; at best, you just sort of do the awkward white-person wiggle so prominent at Dead and baby Dead shows alike. (Remember, too, that David Crosby, the Dead's secret weapon on American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, also crafted the harmonies on "Hold My Hand.")

Come hear Uncle Hootie's band, playing to the crowds. More than 8 million buyers can't be wrong. Or can they?

-- Jim DeRogatis

Porno for Pyros
Good God's Urge
(Warner Bros.)

Porno for Pyros' eponymous 1993 debut, though sprinkled with enthralling tunes, lacked a cohesive sense of transition from leader Perry Farrell's work with Jane's Addiction and ultimately reeled under an overdone sideshow-carnival atmosphere and Farrell's whiny rasp wailing over neo-funk rhythms and heavy-handed production. The album was dense, dark, and uneven.

The band's sophomore offering, Good God's Urge, plays it more sedate. Stripped to a three-piece, PFP now produces a sonic swirl of well-crafted, mystical art rock. Gone is the overabundance of wah-wah effects; guitarist Peter Distefano has shifted the focus of his axe, allowing the instrument to drift and surge with mesmerizing atmospheric fills. Likewise, Stephen Perkins has shifted the weight of the skins; he still creates intricate rhythmic interplay, but with a greater air of subtlety. And Farrell's once bansheelike caterwaul has been harnessed, metamorphosing into a liquidic, raspy, serpentine glow.

For the most part, Farrell and company have chosen to delve deeper into the outermost limits of '90s psychedelic ambience. The most notable change in the PFP sonic spectrum is the use of keyboards and samples, which instill a spatial smack-rock feel to the whole affair. Tracks blend together in rich, moody succession, warmly and irresistibly coaxing you into the PFP polysonic universe. The album commences with "Porpoise Head," a loving swarm of liquid warmth thanks to the lush guitar treatments and lackadaisical bass machinations from Love and Rockets principals Daniel Ash and David J. Punk don Mike Watt is the other major guest of note, gracing "100 Ways" with a gentle, shuffling groove, which coupled with the acoustic guitar strummings of Distefano turns the song into a tasty bit of flamenco-styled psychedelia. The vibe is heightened on "Thick of It All," as Farrell lullingly whispers the mantra "You're in the thick of it all" over and over, while a glimmering acoustic guitar intermingles with otherworldly bird chirps and various noises.

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