TLC isn't just the best-selling "girl group" ever, they're also --along with D'Angelo, Mary J. Blige, and Tony Toni Tone -- among the acts that kept contemporary R&B afloat in the Nineties between Prince's artistic downfall and the emergence of neo-soul. The group's 1995 breakthrough CrazySexyCool was one the decade's great mergers of art and commerce.
The group seemed to have lost their crown to Destiny's Child for a while at the turn of the decade, as that group of upstarts released a string of brilliant singles. But success showed just how callow Destiny's Child was, and TLC's more modest, more grown-up take on hip-hop-soul has proven more durable, which makes it all the more sad that 3D, the group's fourth album, is a farewell.
Still struggling with the death last year of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, remaining members Chilli and T-Boz have produced a final act that captures the group at their best --in full, confident command of all facets of contemporary R&B. With a string of A-list producers helping shape the sound (Rodney Jerkins, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Raphael Saadiq, Organized Noize, Babyface, and longtime collaborator Dallas Austin), 3D is a roadmap of modern soul. And the lack of any sort of intentional tribute to Lopes, the irrepressible hip-hop conscience of the group, only makes her few appearances all the more powerful, whether entering on the lead single "Girl Talk" to announce "Remember me, Left Eye from TLC?/You got to lick it 'fore you stick it, and that's just how I be" or getting in a few final words on that house she burned down during her rap on "Over Me."
While 3D doesn't boast any individual songs as time-capsule-worthy as CrazySexyCool's trifecta of "Creep," "Waterfalls," and "Red Light Special" or even anything as much of a sure shot as FanMail's megahits "No Scrubs" and "Unpretty," it may be as consistently pleasurable an R&B record as has been released in 2002.
A typically saucy record, 3D has plenty of guy-taunting, but instead of the economic snobbery that undercut "No Scrubs," Topic A here is sex, which has always been this group's finest subject, one that TLC makes more an adult reality than most anyone else in the Top 40. Sometimes, this takes forms that are playful and confrontational, as on the Dallas Austin-produced "Quickie," with its frustrated chorus "First he came/And then he went/Right to sleep on me." Other times, the sex talk is smoother and more contented, as on the surprisingly melodic Neptunes-produced "In Your Arms Tonight," a swooning slice of R&B driven by T-Boz's velvety vocals.
Who knows what the remaining T&C will do next? But from the acoustic-driven pop of "Damaged" to the dance-floor eruption of the typically hot Missy/Timbaland track "Dirty Dirty," this is a would-be artistic rebound turned worthy ending to one of the last decade's greatest pop runs. -- Chris Herrington
If Iceland's Sigur Rós sang in English, they'd be unbearable and their new album of slow, otherworldly music would seem overly pretentious. First of all, they've named it ( ), which looks like an emoticon but is actually a set of parentheses. The cover and the album packaging are blank, marked only by light, grey-on-white graphics on vellum. There is barely any text at all -- no band name, no song titles, no thank-yous, no production listings -- only a small mention of the band's Web site.
Touring the United States for their previous album, Agaetis Byrjun, the band discovered that English-speaking audiences, at a loss for the meanings of the Icelandic-language lyrics, were making up their own meanings for the songs and deluging the Web site with their own translations.
Rather than discouraging different interpretations, the band encourages them, going so far as to remove all obstacles to the listeners' own personal experiences with the music. This is where the stark packaging on ( ) connects with the stark music. The lack of a tracklist lets listeners make up their own song titles, and the lack of text provides plenty of space to scribble individual interpretations. Even the title leaves the album open-ended, a blank to be filled not by the band but by its devoted audience.
Fortunately, the music is anything but blank. The band's unhurried arrangements progress purposefully and patiently, not necessarily building to full-bodied climaxes but simply flowing to different points, as if the band is trying to see where the songs lead. The third track ends on a quiet coda as a piano and hushed keyboards slowly rise and fall to eventually fade into silence. The final track, which has become a staple of live shows, builds to and sustains an intense finale that caps the album perfectly.
Ultimately, ( ) is anything but unbearable or pretentious: It's strong and solid enough to live up to any meaning listeners can assign it. -- Stephen Deusner
Rocket From The Crypt
The last thing you need is to read about a band "that's been doing it all along" --the "it" being the recent mainstream institution known as garage rock, or just rock, or rock with good-looking people, or just people with guitars who play them fast and don't bark or rap along with the music. There are miles of illegible liner notes accompanying this album (written by Long Gone John of Sympathy For The Record Industry -- an early home to RFTC) that provide ample vitriol in the name of RFTC's longevity and relevance. To the credit of this position, the mainstream media often resemble your out-of-touch aunty once they get teeth into a trend that was originally rooted in the underground, so it must be preached, just not by me.
To understand the RFTC of 2002, you have to understand the RFTC of 1992. This is because they are almost the same thing; it's the world around them that has changed. By 1992, RFTC had already established two things that would contradict each other for the next decade. Number one is the shtick: Frequently silly matching outfits, a silly horn section, and silly aliases ("Apollo 9," "Speedo," and "JC 2000"). Number two is the sound: Good-times punk that was far more advanced than the semiliterate, half-witted fare normally associated with Southern Californian punk and indie rock. It enjoyed a duality too, because it could flirt with sheer aggression and unfriendly chord abuse before flipping on a coin to bounce through some artsy, faux bowling-alley-parking-lot-rumble anthem.
As stated, little has changed in the overall package over 10 years, aside from Live from Camp X-Ray airing a little more dirty laundry than usual and coming across exponentially more pissed-off in the process. The band has followed a familiar script over the last decade: subject of a major-label bidding war and subsequent major label difficulties that sent them back to the indies. The band sounds freer now on punk indie Vagrant, but is it too little too late? The guess here is that, for RFTC fans, Live from will be no watershed, but a monthlong stereo staple could be banked on. --Andrew Earles