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I can’t help thinking that Hootie & the Blowfish are at the middle of a very serious conspiracy that just might reach to the highest levels of authority. I remember when I first heard them: I was sitting around on an otherwise unremarkable day, watching MTV, and on came “Hold My Hand.” I don’t know how, but eerily, I already knew the tune. Two minutes into hearing Darius Rucker for the first time, I was singing along with him. Weird, huh? This same bizarre phenomenon has repeated itself with every new Hootie song I’ve heard. And everybody I know has remarked on the same semipsychic reaction. There can only be one explanation: A couple of years ago, all of us had Hootie & the Swingin’ Blowfish microchip receivers secretly implanted in our heads while we were sleeping. (Apparently the beach-and-bar-band-circuit frat boys were merely a test demographic.) I don’t know who could be responsible for this, but I will not rest until I find out.

I’m beginning to think the government could be behind it. This is a band that even NEA-bashing troglodytes can embrace: four smiling, multiracial (from South Carolina, no less), heterosexual young men who sing upbeat songs about love, and play golf. It makes perfect sense—to wean us from the ugly, subversive excesses of grunge, Newt and his Gingrinches have force-fed us the Righteous Blowfish. How else can you explain the otherwise irrational impulse so many people felt to buy Cracked Rear View? Hootie’s debut album is currently (according to Entertainment Weekly) the 10th best-selling record ever in the United States—at 13 million copies—and it’s still gaining on Thriller at about 45,000 units a week.

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Damn this chip in my head! The Red Hot Blowfish’s sophomore effort, Fairweather Johnson, was released last month, and wouldn’t you know, I knew all the songs on that disc, too. It’s maddening. “But wait,” said a little voice in my head. “Don’t overreact. These are just harmless little pop songs.” Interested, I kept listening to the voice. “There’s no microchip. The songs are merely full of instantly memorizable pop hooks that people just can’t get enough of. So watch the MTV Unplugged special, buy the album, and live your life for Hootie.” I was a little skeptical. When the voice then told me to buy a set of graphite clubs and vote for Dole, I tuned it out—then banged my head against the wall a dozen times or so, hoping to dislodge that accursed chip.

Notwithstanding our digitally coerced impulse to embrace Hootie and his Microchip Marketing Blowfish, the business of pop music is carried on quite competently throughout Fairweather Johnson. Perhaps in an effort to answer those critics who found more substance in a jar of Marshmallow Fluff than in Cracked Rear View, the band has subtly moved away from the irresistible pop clinchers that ran rampant through its first effort. The guys may have tinkered with the recipe—a little more of this, a little less of that—but the ingredients remain basically the same. The Hammond organ work of John Nau, featured on one track of Cracked, is present throughout much of the new disc. The violin that made a cameo on the first disc shows up again here, most effectively on “Tootie,” a lilting acoustic ballad that’s sure to be the slow song of choice at junior-high dances around the country. The guitar riffs are a bit more complex; Mark Bryan’s discordant strumming on the opening track, “Be the One,” as well as his more delicate hook on “Let It Breathe,” are new developments.

Rucker stretches out and flexes some considerable balladeering muscle; he’s made some effort to tone down the baritone bellowing of Cracked, but the kooky ballads remain in no short supply. His short, bittersweet a cappella intro to “She Crawls Away” perhaps signals a welcome trend in Hootie vocalizing. Similarly agreeable is the presence of Nanci Griffith’s backing melodies on “Earth Stopped Cold at Dawn”; you can tell Rucker is doing his best to give her a chance to be heard. But it’s tough to keep a loud man down: That irrepressible moan shows up in unwelcome places, as on the Skynyrd-lite “So Strange” or in the form of start-to-finish yelling on “Be the One.”

It’s also evident on a ditty called “Silly Little Pop Song,” as Rucker belts the vocals over some Rubber Soul-era-Beatles ooh-la-la-la’s. Hey, Paul McCartney wanted to fill the world with silly love songs, so must we begrudge Hootie and his Musical Blowfish their chance? They still have plenty of time to turn into the Beatles; maybe Rucker will marry an eccentric Japanese artist, the band’ll stop touring and start taking acid and hanging with the Maharishi, and in five years or so, the Yogic Blowfish will release the most critically acclaimed record of our time. They seem to have tried to take a small step for Hootie away from extended commercial jingles on Fairweather Johnson, but is it possible that by raising the complexity quotient just a bit they’ll alienate their lemming listeners as well as the critics they’re trying to appease, and fall off the face of the earth? Probably not—the Conspiring Blowfish are much too smart for that. Still, I won’t hold my breath waiting for Sgt. Hootie. I’m too busy worrying about these songs popping into my head.

The Dave Matthews Band has no such weight behind its second record, Crash; 13 million units sold and worldwide domination seem beyond DMB’s grasp. But there still are sinister forces with a big stake in the band’s success. In the wake of Jerry Garcia’s death and the subsequent deposit of his remains in India, his legions need someone to turn to for more of that creative, jam-based songcrafting they so love. Some misguided souls have thought that the Charlottesville, Va.–based DMB might somehow fill the void, picking up the mantle sacred to Jerry’s Kids and running with it. Yes, you can do the Dead Shuffle (sway to the left, sway to the right, arms bent, then flailing) to DMB songs, but we shouldn’t give them any titles just because stoned kids like them.

Opening up Crash, the follow-up to 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, I was forced to leaf through the merchandise catalog stuck in the middle of the CD booklet: 11 different T-shirts, seven different baseball caps, posters, knit hats, sweatshirts, songbooks, stickers, and of course, the DMB mousepad (Mastercard or Visa only, please). At the very least, if they can’t pick up all the Dead’s younger listeners, DMB can pick up their merchandising. Sinister forces indeed.

While skimming the DMB catalog the omnipresent little pop-candy hook line from college-party fave “Ants Marching” started bouncing around in my head. As I tried to shake it, I wondered, how long could DMB’s music sustain the group’s merchandising?

It was that crazy suburban groovability on DMB’s first record that pulled in those itinerant jam-band junkies who were all wondering what happened to the Spin Doctors. At its best, DMB recaptures the groove, careening through “Too Much.” Matthews sounds confident, exuding a nastiness missing from his vocals on much of the remainder of the record, while Leroi Moore, on baritone sax, lays down a platform for the song to build on. But the groove often proves elusive on Crash, leaving songs like “Let You Down” and “Proudest Monkey,” which drones on for nine minutes, to meander beatless through ballad hell. In an attempt to change it up and incorporate a world-music beat on some occasions, a spacier feel on others, DMB has lost a hold on the loping cadences that were the best thing about its first effort. At its worst, the result is something like QVC background music: “We’re up to 346 orders on this item, only five minutes left to call and place your order!”

Most of what’s left sounds like an attempt at Dream of the Blue Turtles-era Sting, who used a similar mix of instruments much more successfully. But Matthews, when trying to match vocals with the former Policeman, shows a bad case of chronic restraint; maybe he and Darius should talk this over for a little while. On the throwaway sex-ballad “Crash Into Me,” Matthews can’t seem to come up with the attitude appropriate to lines like “Hike up your skirt and show the world to me.” You root for him—you hope the guy who penned those insipid lyrics would at least have the cheekiness to pull it off. But no.

I fear that the nascent success (yes, nascent—isn’t that the most troubling aspect of this whole thing?) of Hootie & the Check-Endorsing Blowfish and the Dave Merchandising Band will send a flood of A&R guys scrambling through bars and colleges in the coastal South looking for the next commercially viable Everyman pop sensation. For MTV’s pregame show for the Hootie episode of Unplugged (yup, there was a pregame show), they dredged up a handful of college bands from the University of South Carolina, Hootie’s alma mater.

Meanwhile, I’ve contacted the people who make the V-chip; we’re going to start working on my own version, the H-chip. Maybe then I can get some peace of mind.CP