Peering from the cover like a troika of Kraftwerk Smurfs, TLC followed up the gazillion-selling CrazySexyCool earlier this year with Fanmail, a disc pleasantly front-loaded with precocious attempts to goose the sometimes staid R&B crossover market. While it was still well-rooted in the kind of pop/hip-hop/smooth-R&B aesthetic that'll rack up sales whether it's formula dreck or not, the record also found the group utilizing beats as innovative as the latest No Limit or Timbaland creations. The title track, "Silly Ho," and "If They Knew" find the band exploring variations on the Miami-Atlanta bounce sound: triple-time high-end tweets, beats like snaps closing shut, elastic bass lines, a pleasantly punchy low end, and lots of open space for the rhythms to play themselves out. Even the more staid moments on this record showed an awareness of popular hip-hop's now sounds: The lead single, "No Scrubs," adapted the bounce sound to shmoover ends, and just when the band seemed ready to descend into diva-ready fluff during the intro to "I'm So Good at Being Bad," the song rapidly transitioned into aggressive hip-hop, creating a moment of high claustrophobia more reminiscent of Tricky than of Puff Daddy.

Beyond the question of beats, some observers have also used TLC as evidence of an ever-shifting feminine ideal and interpreted its lyrics as plaints of the modern woman -- unsure of her place in a world that celebrates both the bitch and the baby doll. Admittedly, this album's lyrics do at times grapple with issues of self-image: "Unpretty" voices such fears in both standard (nose jobs; hair extensions) and atypical ("At the end of the day I have myself to blame") ways. "Fanmail," meanwhile, aligns the group and its fans with a lyric that could come from the Brian Wilson songbook: "Just like you / I am lonely too." But it would be wrongheaded to analyze the lyrics of Fanmail too closely.

The three members of TLC are supposed to represent distinct female types, but really only Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes has an identity that sticks out as particularly idiosyncratic: She's the one who donned the condom eyepatch; she's the one who reportedly burned down the mansion of ex-boyfriend Andre Rison; she's the one being groomed for a solo career, with her Web site ( posting "information on future projects." And with the vast majority of this record's music, lyrics, and production coming courtesy of apparent Texaphile Dallas Austin, any messaging has been heavily filtered through a svengali's sensibilities. So when Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins sings "I ain't ever been no silly bitch / Waitin' to get rich / From another bank account" on "Silly Ho," or when Rozonda "Chili" Thomas croons "Want to get with me with no money oh no I don't want no scrub" on "No Scrubs," it's probably nothing deeper than the puppeteers' manufactured attitude.

Fanmail hits a bland patch around track 10 and never really recovers -- except for "Lovesick," whose nifty rhythm track is half-constructed of telephone bleeps, busy signals, and other sonic artifacts from the telecommunication age -- but that doesn't stop this record from being a fine pop album that skillfully negotiates the requirements of urban contemporary radio and MTV. Just remember: It's the beats, stupid.

Alec Hanley Bemis


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