Hootie Doesn't Blow It : HOOTIE & THE BLOWFISH, "Fairweather Johnson" ** 1/2, Atlantic

Selling umpteen million albums hasn't puffed up the Blowfish--the South Carolina quartet's follow-up to its phenomenal debut, "Cracked Rear View," is so lacking in affectation that you could imagine these guys making the same album if their last one had sold just a few thousand. Only the tomfoolery of the title track--a brief ode to bandwagon-jumpers--gives any clue that they understand how big they are. Their unforced modesty is worthy of Gary Cooper.

In the rest of the songs, reprising and expanding on the debut's comfortable neo-Americana, the band sounds as if it is neither trying to repeat a successful formula nor self-consciously changing up to avoid becoming a cliche--an unaffected move in itself. "She Crawls Away," for example, is not "Let Her Cry, Part II," but neither is it a radical departure. And if Darius Rucker, blessed with a rich, naturally gritty voice, tries too hard to be soulful and emotional (is he chopping onions while he sings?), he comes off as completely earnest.

Of course, unaffectedness is what sold all those albums in the first place, attracting an audience that's turned off by big-ego stars and unable to relate to angry, alienated youth--the dominant features on the rock-pop landscape. No complaint about that. In a world where betrayal, suspicion and confusion are the primary rock topics, more plain-talking examinations of loyalty, friendship and love--Hootie's thematic cornerstones--are welcome.

With Hootie's lack of pretension, though, comes a lack of clear ambition or vision. Which isn't to say "Fairweather" lacks distinctions. Mark Bryan's guitar tapestries in the opening "Be the One"--a virtual R.E.M. homage--signal a boost in band power. And throughout the album there are overt nods toward the Beatles (the sprightly power-pop hook of "Sad Caper" and jolly ooh-la-la-las on "Silly Little Pop Song"), John Mellencamp (splashes of fiddle and mandolin) and '60s Stax soul (classic Hammond organ fills), with former Mellencamp producer Don Gehman keeping things crisply vibrant.

But these are all well-worn elements, and even when they all meet in "So Strange," with guest vocals by Nanci Griffith, there's nothing unique about the blend, nothing that leaps out to say, definitively, this is what Hootie is all about. It would be one thing if it left a sense of mystique, but it doesn't. Of course, in some circles, mystique is considered an affectation.

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