Tongues have been wagging over Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker's new country album, Learn to Live. He recently scored a hit with “Don't Think I Don't Know About It,” and has made the talk show circuit discussing his seemingly improbable transformation to country star. What some may not know is that this is not his first solo effort; his 2002 album Back to Then, showcased his love of R&B mixed with rock. The CD barely made a dent on the pop and R&B charts, quietly slipping away from public consciousness. Even Rucker's own website makes no mention of the work.
However, Back to Then is an unfairly dismissed album, a stellar effort that probably suffered from not sticking to any one genre. While the album leans toward R&B, it also nods to jazz, rock, hip-hop, and folk. Radio programmers couldn't fit the CD into any one category, thus Rucker received barely any airplay. Now that Rucker is back in the music scene, the time is ripe for rediscovering Back to Then.
Beginning with the funky track “Wild One,” Rucker expands his vocal range, using more nasal inflections and even allowing a bit of raspiness. The horns punctuate the tempo, making it resemble an old-school Philadelphia soul single. The next track, “Exodus,” features swirling chords, with acoustic guitar dominating the sound. “One More Night” finds him in his “please baby please” begging mode, but he pulls it off with his deep vocals.
The album also includes an interesting duet with Jill Scott, “Sometimes I Wonder,” which deftly combines R&B with a funkier beat. From the sound of their voices, the two seemed to have fun recording the tune, slightly laughing as they coo back and forth: Lovin' you is like my dream come true/I want you to know that I'll always be there standing up for you,” Rucker croons, with Scott replying “From the mountain/From the river/From the root to the to the, baby,” with Rucker chuckling in the background. He keeps up surprisingly well with Scott's phrasing and vocal power. Incidentally, this track also appears on Scott's Collaborations compilation.
Unfortunately the album contains a couple of clunkers. Someone apparently informed Rucker that he needed to incorporate some rap into his sound in order to get airplay: the result is “Sleeping in My Bed,” an ill-advised duet with Snoop Dogg. Rucker valiantly tries to sound “street,” but falls short. A brief clip of Rucker singing “Amazing Grace also seems out of place.
While the album mainly contains nicely crafted tunes, the highlight of Back to Then remains “This Is My World,” a should-have-been-hit that contains some of the best pop song lyrics I've heard in a while. As the midtempo beat kicks in, strings and piano swirl as though they sneaked in from a Babyface session. The lyrics address an important issue in any relationship, the tendency to want to change the other person:
And you want me to change
I can't get used to
All you want me to be
I just can't pretend
To be anyone else
'Cause it's not really me
The clever refrain includes rebuttals from the man and woman: the man states “This is my world, This is who I am/And I'm not gonna give up myself/To make your life better.” The woman responds to this position, singing “This is how it is/I got my own life to live/And you can either accept me/Or baby let me go.”
The lyrics are straightforward, the melody catchy, and the music instantly catches the ear. It addresses a more mature love, saying that if the couple can accept each other for who they are, “then we can withstand all/The obstacles that life brings forth.” Who cannot relate to this issue? The song even earned a place in the film Shallow Hal, since it certainly relates to the movie's central premise. Even that exposure didn't turn “This Is My World” into a hit, which is a pity.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I am not a Hootie & The Blowfish fan. In their 90's heyday, I found them bland, a glorified bar band. I cringed when they won a Grammy for Best New Artist of 1996. Admittedly, I initially brought this prejudice to Back to Then, but was pleasantly surprised at Rucker's ability to alter his voice and evoke emotion from the lyrics. His unwillingness to adhere to one genre is also admirable. If Rucker had shown these qualities as Hootie's lead singer, I would have become a much bigger fan of the band.
If you decide to pick up Rucker's new country album, don't overlook Back to Then. Darius Rucker himself shouldn't ignore this stellar work on his website. Back to Then encapsulates the true definition of a buried treasure and a most pleasurable listen.
For more information on Darius Rucker, visit his official website. However, you won't find any information on Back to Then. Thankfully a video search turned up clips of “Wild One” and “Exodus.” The album's label, Hidden Beach, also has a website devoted to the release.