Hootie & the Blowfish

Front man and lyricist Darius Rucker still belts out his compositions in the soulful baritone that helped sell 14 million copies of the band's '94 major-label debut, Cracked Rear View, but he has contracted a bad case of mumbleitis on this record. On some songs—"Honeyscrew," and "Fool"—he even makes Bob Dylan sound like a speech therapist. This is relevant because some, if not much, of Cracked Rear View's appeal relied on its high sing-along quotient. (Remember how fun singing "Only Wanna Be with You" was, cruising in a car?) This summer millions of Hootie fans will instead be craning their necks toward their boom boxes to decipher Rucker's cryptic delivery.

But as with Dylan, Mick Jagger and even Michael Stipe, Rucker's poor elocution doesn't subvert the music. Whether it's an uplifting rocker like the forthcoming single "Old Man & Me" or a torch song such as "So Strange," Fairweather Johnson plays like a live record, brimming with trademark Hootie harmonies, hooks, feel-good melodies and a wall of sound bound to raise goose bumps. At the very least, one can hum along to "Sad Caper," "She Crawls Away" and "Tucker's Town" because they are so infectious. To be sure, little about the band's platinum musical formula has changed. Except, of course, that you'll need a lyric sheet this time around. (Atlantic)

Charlie Haden—Quartet West

What is the difference between pretty and beautiful? One answer suggested by Haden's superb new album is that pretty plays it safe while beauty takes chances. Two chances that Quartet West took involve recording with strings—which can more easily cloy and suffocate than ennoble—and laying down the tracks live in the studio, without the safety net of over-dubs. Now is the hour, indeed.

This may be the hour as well for Quartet West—at 10 years and counting, one of the most experienced working bands in jazz. Following 1993's sub-par Always Say Goodbye, the group rebounds fully to put Hour, its fifth album, on the same high level as 1992's landmark Haunted Heart. (In the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that this reviewer is one of eight people at Time Inc. thanked in Hour's liner notes for helping Haden secure an old LIFE photo for the album cover. Rarely have thanks been so unwarranted.)

The joy, sadness and humor that permeate this richly melodic disc stem from the distinctive sound of each musician: bassist Haden, pianist Alan Broad-bent, drummer Larance Marable and tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, whose sound is a contradiction—soft, but with an edge. Watts is thoughtful, lyrical; economical. There is, actually, one word for his work here and for the whole of this deep, affecting record: Beautiful. (Verve)

George Strait

Other country singers can raise more hell, break more hearts or toss off more aw-shuckses, but few can rival George Strait's durability. He has prospered since the early '80s with a signature sound that updates Nashville traditions without turning suburban-rock trendy. His 17th studio release continues that approach, opening with the sunny title cut, a song goosed along by the joy of unexpectedly falling in love. Strait does fine with this sort of obligatory radio-bound single, but he clearly relishes an older number like 1973's "She Knows when You're on My Mind," complete with keening steel guitar, in which he sings about a woman who cries, knowing that "I turn to her because you turned me down." There's at least one cloud scudding across this Sky: "Rockin' in the Arms of Your Memory" is a melodramatic full nelson. But all is forgiven by album's end, when Strait—crooning on a romantic ballad—proves he easily could have gone nightclub instead of Nashville. It's called "Need I Say More," and the answer is: No, George, you don't. (MCA Nashville)

Sisters with Voices

The love songs that dominate this sophomore set suggest that SWV and their various producers have spent much of the three years-plus since It's About Time, the trio's multi-platinum debut, with eyes trained on the charts. Perhaps they haven't been paying close enough attention: New Beginning is also the title of Tracy Chapman's current disc.

Obviously, the road less traveled is not the route of choice for this R&B girl group. The same old sweet nothings fill these tunes, and the hour-long album drags, in the words of one song title, "On and On." Let TLC bring on risky, risqué funk and Total pump hip-hop beats and spread harmonies with bad-girl flair. SWV would rather fine-tune the catchy, lightweight soul of It's About Time than dare live up to their new CD's title. (RCA)

>The X-Files's Chris Carter

MUSIC IS THE REAL MYSTERY

TV's darkest hour, The X-Files, now has its very own companion album. Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by The X-Files (Warner Bros.) features moody, original contributions from such artists as Foo Fighters, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and R.E.M. X-Files creator and executive producer Chris Carter, 39, had only one requirement for the artists who agreed to write for the CD. "I didn't want anything poppy or bright," he says, "unless there was some dark irony to it."

How did this project come about?

In two episodes last season, we used a Nick Cave song, "Red Right Hand." It was a song I'd heard on an alternative radio station and thought was amazing, very X-Files-ish. People started thinking I had some secret source for cool music, and some music guys at Fox asked me to put a disc together. I said yes and then called in David Was [the album's co-executive producer] to help me. I only wanted to do it if we could get original material. I wanted to go to people I've always admired.

How did the artists react?

None of these people needed to be on an X-Files disc. They came to it out of true enthusiasm for the project. Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters came up to the set in Vancouver (B.C.) to hang out. Danzig asked me to direct the video for "Deep," the song of theirs that we used. This is all a weird twist: music inspired by the show as inspiration for the show.

You wrote the words to P.M. Dawn's contribution, "If You Never Say Goodbye." Do you have musical aspirations?

I play piano poorly, but I am a closet lyricist. I realized with this song how hard it is to do something beautiful and crystal in three minutes or less. This is one of the dividends I'd never expected when the show started, that I'd get to work with musicians like this. I stand in awe of them. It's their world that seems a real mystery to me.

  • Contributors:
  • Peter Castro,
  • Eric Levin,
  • Mark Lasswell,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Craig Tomashoff.