Listening to "Scattered, Smothered & Covered" (Atlantic *) is like being wedged between two guitar amplifiers in the back of a Ford Econoline Van and listening to the four dudes up front who are singing along to songs blasting from the tape deck by R.E.M., Radney Foster and The Reivers. It's 1991, 3 a.m., and the van is bouncing along at 75 miles per hour on I-20 between Meridian, Miss., and Birmingham, Ala. Hootie and the Blowfish are on their way to another gig, and they've brought some of their favorite songs along to get them through the night.
Those songs, rounded up on the new Hootie B-sides collection that arrives in stores today, reveals a lot about the band's musical inspiration and influential roots. Hootie has always been a musical smorgasbord, with equal helpings of pop and rock and healthy servings of soul and country music on the side.
When Mark Bryan, Darius Rucker, Jim Sonefeld and Dean Felber began composing their own songs, they relied heavily on this musical feast to guide their words and chord changes.
So it's not surprising that, during the recording of their three major label releases for Atlantic Records, Hootie would use some studio down time to track a few of those old songs played over and over in the van.
And that, for the most part, is what comprises "Scattered, Smothered & Covered." There's Foster's country rocker "Fine Line," with a sweet harmony from singer Gena Rankin; Don Dixon's "Renaissance Eye," as close to a slow blues as Hootie is likely to get; and R.E.M.' s "Driver 8," which is given a haunting, acoustic treatment with Susan Cowsill on harmony vocal.
Tom Waits' "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You" is the duet between Bryan and Rucker taped during the 1996 "MTV Unplugged" show on the USC Horseshoe; "Gravity of the Situation" is a cool collaboration between Rucker and singer Nanci Griffith; and the rocking version of Bill Withers' "Use Me," a Hootie concert favorite, was recorded especially for this album and features singer Edwin McCain and saxophonist Craig Shields.
My two favorites are smack in the middle of the album's 15 tracks. Foster & Lloyd's "Before the Heartache Rolls In" is a mellow, late-night rocker with John Nau on Hammond B-3 and a tastefully overdriven guitar solo from Bryan. "Araby" is an exhilarating blast of mid-'80s pop rock from an Austin, Texas, band called Zeitgeist in 1884 when they recorded this tune, but later called The Reivers.
In many ways, "Scattered, Smothered & Covered" is Hootie at their best -- carefree, loose and full of the tried-and-true pop melodies that have endeared the band to millions. It's a flashback to the '80s and cover bands in college bars, a ride that's nostalgic but not dated.
Back on the highway, the van is vibrating to "Use Me," and you shove an amplifier out of the way so you can bellow along with the fellows, "I'm gonna spread the news that if it feels this good gettin' used, well, you can keep on using me ... till you use me up!"
Suddenly a Waffle House sign appears ahead on the right. The tires squeal on the exit ramp, and everyone piles out, charges through the door and elbows into a booth.
"How you want those hash browns?" asks the waitress.
"Scattered, smothered and covered," the four, bleary-eyed musicians reply in unison.