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There's still more Hendrix to be experienced. Blondie's roots are showing, and TLC tries to stay sexy, cool and crazy after all these years.

February 23, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Bill Clinton isn't the only public figure trying to make a fresh start these days. Blondie, the most successful band punk ever produced, has just released its first new album in 17 years. Likewise, the hip-hop trio TLC is hoping that after five years of silence, its fans haven't forgotten how crazy, sexy and cool they are. But the biggest blast from the past comes from Jimi Hendrix, who may be seen in a whole new light thanks to previously unreleased performances by his Band of Gypsys.

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`Fan Mail' (LaFace/Arista 73008-26055)

Sun score * *

At the beginning of TLC's new album, "Fan Mail" (LaFace/Arista 73008-26055, arriving in stores today), an electronic voice informs us that the group has "dedicated our entire album cover to every person who has ever sent us fan mail."

Seeing as the trio's sophomore release, "CrazySexyCool," sold more than 10 million copies, it's a fair bet they've received quite a bit of fan mail over the years. But recently? In the five years that have passed since "CrazySexyCool" hit the stores, TLC's inactivity has let the group all but drift out of the pop consciousness, displaced by more visible acts like Brandy, Aaliyah and Xscape.

In that sense, TLC's album title gives new meaning to the phrase "snail mail" -- it seems to have arrived about three years late.

But currency isn't the problem facing T-Boz, Left-Eye and Chili (as members Tionne Watkins, Lisa Lopes and Rozonda Thomas are known). "Fan Mail" just doesn't deliver on the trio's promise, lacking both the social significance and musical moxie of the trio's first two albums.

What originally set TLC apart was the way the group split the difference between hip-hop and pop. Singles like "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" and "Creep" managed to seem both worldly wise and innocent, offering a taste of the streetwise grit of edgier acts, but without the nastiness or menace. Even when the three sang about sex, as on the sultry "Red Light Special," they never made it seem raw or dirty.

Not so this time around. The TLC we hear on "Fan Mail" has no compunctions about stooping to raw language or dirty thoughts. "I'm Good at Being Bad" is a case in point. Built around a thumping hook that borrows from the Donna Summer oldie "Love To Love You, Baby," it finds the three women singing candidly about the kind of men they want to love.

Except what they're really talking about is sex, not love, and the language they use has no use for polite terms like "man" and "woman." In this world, it's all playas and hos (and worse), as TLC's members take pains to show they're just as "down" as any rapper.

At least "I'm Good at Being Bad" sugarcoats its vulgarities with a catchy chorus and clever arrangement; the best that most of the album can manage is a mildly infectious beat.

Place the blame squarely on TLC's squad of producers. When the group first hit, its sound was totally cutting edge, from the silken sheen of the ballads to the hip-shaking thump of the dance tunes. "Fan Mail," on the other hand, sounds like a game of catch-up, as executive producer Dallas Austin does his best to imitate the sound of younger, hipper studio crews.

So the first single, a misguided attempt at feminist strength called "Silly Ho," emulates the clockwork funk of Brandy producer Rodney Jerkins, while "If They Knew" clearly draws from the itchy drum machine patterns Timbaland concocted for Missy Elliott's debut. Been there, heard that.

That's not to say the album is entirely without charm. "No Scrubs" is an engagingly funky dismissal of wanna-be boyfriends, and the mid-tempo "Come On Down" is as warm and inviting as a sun-dappled Caribbean beach.

On the whole, though, "Fan Mail" sounds like nothing so much as a mediocre Janet Jackson album. And not only is that strikingly unoriginal, it's not particularly entertaining. Mark this one "Return to Sender."

Only the shreds are left; Back Tracks


`No Exit' (Beyond 63985-78003)

Sun score * 1/2

"Wouldn't you like to rip her to shreds?"

That was the catch phrase in an early Blondie ad, a tag line that played off the title "Rip Her to Shreds," a song from the band's eponymous debut, while at the same time alluding to singer Deborah Harry's smoldering sensuality.

Although critics at the time carped that the slogan's play on sex and violence stank of misogyny, the ad nonetheless struck at the heart of the band's alluringly edgy image, suggesting that there was something both dangerous and attractive about Harry and her band mates.

"Wouldn't you like to rip her to shreds?" came back to me while listening to Blondie's comeback album, "No Exit" (Beyond 63985-78003, arriving in stores today). Recorded with the core of the original band -- Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and drummer Clem Burke -- it's the first new music the group has made in 17 years.

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