Back Tracks; 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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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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TLC

'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

Blondie

'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.

"No Exit" draws heavily on Blondie's punk-rock roots. From the post-modern girl group sound of "Out In the Streets" to the sci-fi cheesiness that flavors "Nothing Is Real But the Girl," the songs on "No Exit" touch on the same influences that formed the band's first two albums, "Blondie" and "Plastic Letters." Listening to wry, retro-romanticism of "Maria," it's hard not to flash back to the '60s-style sound of early tunes like "In the Sun" and "Sunday Girl."

But that isn't why that old ad came to mind. Truth is, I never wanted to rip Blondie to shreds. But this album leaves me no choice.

A veritable zombie of an album, "No Exit" has all the hallmarks of the Blondie sound, but none of the energy or verve. Where once the band was witty and energetic, embracing surf rock and monster movie cliches with the zeal of true fans, now it seems stiff and calculating, making the same moves as before but without any real sense of why.

"No Exit" seems less like a comeback than a re-animation gone horribly, horribly wrong. Though the band may remember what worked the first time around, it's clear they haven't a clue as to how to make that magic happen again. So we're stuck with half-hearted efforts to recapture the past, like "Under the Gun" (dedicated to former Gun Club singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce) and "Divine," a weird cross between "The Tide Is High" and "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear."

It isn't all refried hits, of course. Blondie never did ska before, and while "Screaming Skin" demonstrates that that was probably for the best, at least they tried. (There's also an attempt at jazz called "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room," but the less said about that, the better.)

On the whole, though, "No Exit" proves Sartre wrong: Hell isn't other people -- it's their comeback attempts.

A kiss from the sky; Back Tracks

Jimi Hendrix

Live at the Fillmore East (MCA 11931)

Sun score * * *

No one has ever disputed that Jimi Hendrix was onto something when he assembled the Band of Gypsys with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. Where the arguments usually start is when fans begin to debate just what their music actually portended.

Hendrix's Band of Gypsys was exceptionally short-lived. Its first shows were at New York's Fillmore East, on New Year's Eve 1969 and New Year's Day 1970; it then broke up after a disastrous gig at Madison Square Garden a few weeks later.

Luckily, the Fillmore shows were recorded, and in April 1970 -- five months before the guitarist's death -- "Band of Gypsys" was released to an eagerly awaiting world. Much later, Alan Douglas (who controlled the Hendrix archives until a 1993 lawsuit returned control to the guitarist's family), cobbled together "Band of Gypsys 2." Unfortunately, only two of the album's six selections were actually by the Band of Gypsys, and the 1986 LP was never issued on CD, and eventually deleted.

Now, almost three decades after Hendrix assembled the trio, his estate has released "Live at the Fillmore East" (MCA 11931, arriving in stores today). A double-CD set, it complements the original "Band of Gypsys" album with 16 additional tracks from the Fillmore shows, 13 of which have never been released before.

For Hendrixologists, this is major news and not just because it involves more than an hour of previously unheard recordings.

Over the years, Hendrix's status as a rock and roll hero who also happened to be African-American has fueled a debate about the role of race in rock. The music's roots are clearly in black music (it's impossible to imagine the Beatles or Rolling Stones without Chuck Berry or Howlin' Wolf), but ever since Elvis Presley, people assumed that whites made rock, and blacks made R&B.;

Hendrix challenged that thinking on a fundamental level. His work with the Jimi Hendrix Experience -- which found him backed by two English musicians, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell -- was as psychedelic and "rock" as anything by the era's other leading guitar band, Cream. For most fans, Hendrix was as much a guitar god as his friend and rival, Eric Clapton.

Consequently, a number of musicians and critics see the Band of Gypsys as a turning point for Hendrix. They point to the fact that Miles and Cox, like Hendrix, cut their teeth playing R&B; on the "chitlin circuit" of black theaters in the early '60s. Moreover, as tracks like "Machine Gun" testified, Cox and Miles generated a much funkier groove than the guitarist ever got out of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

This, in other words, was the blackest band Hendrix ever fronted. Not only did it inspire a generation of black guitarists, from Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers to Vernon Reid of Living Colour, but it left many wondering where Hendrix might have taken popular music had he not died so prematurely.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that the Band of Gypsys was just one stop in an on-going journey of exploration for Hendrix. They note that after Cox replaced Redding Cox in 1969, Hendrix began drawing on an ever-widening range of influences, from jazz fusion to Afro-Cuban (remember the percussionists he brought to Woodstock?) to funk.

Further, they point out that by his own admission, Hendrix brought Miles in and created the Band of Gypsys simply so he could fulfill a contractual obligation to Capitol Records. Once an album was in the can, he had no more need for the Band of Gypsys. (Indeed, he went back to working with Cox and Mitchell, as he had before the Fillmore shows.)

Frankly, "Live at the Fillmore East" tends to support the view that the Band of Gypsys was essentially a marriage of convenience for Hendrix.

It isn't just that the trio had little in the way of real repertoire -- "We only know about six songs right now," jokes Hendrix at one point -- or that the absolute best performances from the Fillmore show were already collected on the original "Band of Gypsys" album. For all its power, the Gypsys rarely showed the sort of spark that ignited Hendrix's best performances with the Experience.

Much of the difference lies with drummer Miles. In place of the jazzy counter-rhythms Mitchell built behind Hendrix's solos, Miles laid down a steady, steamroller pulse, and while that certainly upped the funk quotient in "Machine Gun" (two new versions of which appear here), it makes the version of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" on the new disc seem flat-footed.

Still, it's worth noting that the band segues from "Voodoo Child" into a version of "We Gotta Live Together" that not only includes a snippet of Sly & the Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song," but has Miles ad libbing, gospel-style, "Feel like I'm in church right now."

Hearing such a soulful moment from Hendrix may not be a major revelation, but it does reflect an important part of his musical make-up. And in that sense, "Live at the Fillmore East" is essential listening for any Hendrix fan.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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