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TLC
FanMail
(La Face)

Production is often used as a coat of paint that's slapped on to disguise the inferiority of the song beneath it; scrape it off, and what's left can be mighty frightening. But on other occasions (like this one), unfathomably expensive studio techniques can have a fascination all their own. At times during FanMail, it's blindingly obvious that there's not a lot of "there" there--but with a package this canny, it almost doesn't matter.

That's not to say that the big bucks on display here compensate for every sin. Although tunesmith Diane Warren's "Come on Down" isn't as treacly as some of her assembly-line swill, neither is it good enough to convince me that she's no longer the mistress of evil. Likewise, I'm more impressed by Babyface's ability to make mountains of moolah by constantly rewriting the same song than I am by "I Miss You So Much," a stunningly typical soap bubble of a tune that'll probably have lovesick shlock aficionados blubbering like Robert De Niro in Analyze This. But elsewhere, producer Dallas Austin and the other men and women behind the La Face R&B machine do their jobs with extraordinary efficiency; in their hands, even the Barney theme might sound crazysexycool.

Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, whom footballer Andre Rison should have kept away from matches (in a fit of pique, she burned down his house), are the ostensible stars here, and their ability to hit to all fields serves them well. They sound equally credible delivering the teen positivity at the heart of the future smash "Unpretty" as they do snapping off lines such as "Whatcha gonna do with a bitch like me, nigga?" from "I'm Good at Being Bad." The majority of the ditties on hand are impressive as well: "My Life"--a composition by Tamara Savage, who gave Monica some of her choicest cuts--is the very model of smart but accessible Nineties soul, and "Lovesick" rolls along like a Mercedes-Benz on AstroTurf. But this last number also sports a clever rhythm based in part on electronic phone beeps, just as "Silly Ho" uses stylized whoo-hoos and perfectly timed buzzers, and "FanMail" offers up lighter-than-helium beats, sampled voices and harmonies that feel as soft as a feather pillow. By its second minute, all but the stiffest-necked folks will be hopelessly in its thrall. When it comes to TLC's latest, there's no point resisting. Surrender, Dorothy.

--Michael Roberts

The Skatalites, with King Tubby
Heroes of Reggae in Dub
(Motion)

Few reggae albums have been as eagerly anticipated as this 1975 collaboration between the Skatalites, who practically invented ska, and pioneering dub artist King Tubby. Fewer still have generated their own newsletter, as this one did in the year preceding its recent release. Why all the hype? In part because the Skatalites hadn't played together as a band for over a decade at the time of the recording, in part because Tubby was then working at an incredibly high creative level. And since the long-player for which the sessions were conducted never materialized, fans have spent almost a quarter-century speculating about what they assumed was a lost masterpiece.

It's unfortunate, then, that the appeal of Heroes of Reggae in Dub is primarily anthropological. Not only is the recording quality less than superb, but the music itself is underwhelming given the stature of the players involved. The main problem is a clash of styles: Ska's skittering backbeat doesn't lend itself to the psychedelic deconstruction Tubby so deftly applied to the harmony-rich reggae of the Seventies. In addition, the Skatalites' decision to use acoustic bass instead of utilizing the menacing heft of reggae's electric bass lines leaves the songs sounding rather thin, and the marked shortage of vocal tracks has the effect of handcuffing Tubby. As a result, Heroes is less indicative of the various artists' range than the work they've done on their own.

Only occasionally are these shortcomings surmounted. Tubby shreds the lilting guitar on "Every Day I Pray" to magnificent effect; ditto the horn line on "Dub of Love." But while the remaining seven tracks are pleasant, they're also a bit mundane. One can't avoid concluding that the members of this dynamic duo operated to better effect on their own.

--Joshua Green

Various Artists
For the Masses: The Depeche Mode Tribute Album
(A&M)

The call for contributions to this Depeche Mode salute apparently sent every gothy member of the gloom-nik nation scurrying out from the woodwork to pay homage to their leaders. But For the Masses seems more about the enjoyment of the contributing bands than the delight of the listener.

This is a typical tribute-disc plague, of course: Such recordings often end up offending diehard fans, who hate to hear their favorite tunes ruined by less-than-inspired interpretations. Fortunately, a few tracks here transplant the charms of one band to the work of another. A case in point is the Smashing Pumpkins' rendition of "Never Let Me Down Again," in which the Pumpkins' snarly shimmer is in full effect. (Hearing Billy Corgan sing the word "trousers" is almost worth the price of admission.) Likewise, the Cure, an act with comparable cred, comes through with a worthy, eminently danceable version of "World in My Eyes." And Failure's take on "Enjoy the Silence" is a success largely because it hardly deviates from the original at all.

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