BOB DOLE AND ALL THOSE OTHER conservatives keep worrying about gangsta rap, but there's a different kind of menace on the pop-music horizon: Hootie & the Blowfish. With their feel-good philosophies, soft-rock reassurances and peace-love platitudes, Hootie & the Blowfish are a threat to red-blooded, neurotic, dysfunctional Americans everywhere. Our lives screech and jangle out of tune; Hootie offers us cushy riffs and hunky-dory harmonies. A case of whisky couldn't drown our miseries; Hootie serves us light beer. Conventional wisdom says the 13 million fans who bought their 1994 debut album, "Cracked Rear View" (still in the Top 20), can't be wrong, but what about the other 247 million people in this country? If we were too depressed / stressed / anxiety-ridden about our jobs / families / boyfriends / girlfriends / teachers / class bullies / congressmen to fall under Hootie's sway, isn't it possible that we're right?
Now there's a new Hootie album to contend with. Some might read the title "Fairweather Johnson" as a reference to bandwagon jumpers, but we read it as another of Hootie's inane sexual innuendoes. (Cracked rear view? Think about it.) "Fairweather Johnson" is built to sate and satisfy the faithful. There are more soaring roots-rock anthems, more bigger-than-big pop hooks and enough "Hold My Hand"-style church-choir backup vocals to fill a month of Sundays. Darius Rucker gasps and oversings through please-love-me sagas like "Be the One." He has a lovely, rich voice, but he hasn't learned how to rein it in, and when he starts with the help-from-my-friends vibe in "So Strange," he gives us scary flashbacks of Joe Cocker. Most of the songs offer vague assertions of friendship, affection and loss. "You brought me to the window and you taught me how to fly," he sings in "Tootie," and we're not sure what that means, except that his back is going to hurt when he hits the cement. Only in a quieter song like "Earth Stopped Cold at Dawn" does Hootie summon a breath of subtlety, but that's more than undone by the title track, a jokey 50-second indulgence about groovy sports teams. Like the group Chicago in the '70s and Journey in the '80s, Hootie & the Blowfish peddle cozy, bland escapism. They're mediocre. It may not be a moral offense, but artistically they're guilty in the first degree.