The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, November 12, 2002
TLC - AND WHY GRIEVING PEOPLE SHOULDN'T MAKE RECORDS

OK, it wasn't their choice. The Other Two didn't ask for Lisa Left-Eye Lopez to be killed in a car crash. They had already started an album, though no doubt LaFace Records were busily counting the remaining beans on their corporate abacus. Finish it. Put it out. The new album is called 3D (the cover, unlike that of its predecessor Fanmail, is not in 3D). It stands for "three deep." On the cover the three are pictured in black shrouds; already in mourning. Left-Eye peers out from the left as though she was already a ghost.

What must it have been like in the studio? Surely not a case of stopwatches on, let's get on with it. The Man Who Was There - when we see Thornton sitting utterly alone, completely immobile, in his house after McDormand has been executed, surrounded by things which serve only to remind his already nullified soul of what he has lost. It actually doesn't matter if he goes to the chair; his "life" was long since over anyway. I want to believe that the recording studio was like that. It certainly sounds it on at least half of the record.

I don't generally believe that it's a good thing for bereaved, grieving musicians to immediately go into the studio and start recording. Not unless you are the Blue Notes, with such a common depth of experiences, tunes, creeds to call up, who went straight into the studio after Mongezi Feza's funeral in December 1975, blew their hearts out for two-and-a-half hours, edited it down slightly and released it as the double album Blue Notes For Mongezi - one of the most genuinely harrowing records ever made, almost unlistenable in its intensity and yet finally elevating in its hope. Kwela songs, chants, riffs, flow in and out of the firestorm as if they were inseparable from the bodies and souls of the musicians.

With 3D, however, TC (as they should really now be called) sound gutted but also sound as though they've had to punch the clock and get those hits out. I'm not sure how many will emanate from here.

The insoluble problem is, of course, that Left Eye was the entire punctum of TLC, the detail, the factor which lifted them from just being a slightly more switched-on SWV, or a brownstone equivalent of En Vogue. Always, the more Left Eye on a TLC album, the better the album. She immediately explodes all over their 1992 debut Ooooooohhh...On The TLC Tip - which I still consider to be far and away their best record. Directly after we hear a clip of some dumbass guy dissing their image ("maybe it's a black thing...but they're kinda cute"), Left Eye shatters the complacency with sirens, beats going every which way, sneering and hollering gleefully at us for "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," the most assertive and mischievous debut pop single of the '90s - everything we pretended that "Wannabe" was. Half a dozen samples criss-cross each other into an astonishingly avant-garde soundscape which yet does not lose the essential song. The lyric talks of sexual desperation - a very belated response to David Ruffin 27 years previously - but her delivery tells you that really she's the one in control. And she continually, gloriously derails everything else on the record, incluiding the near Cabaret Voltaire electroscape of "Das Da Way We Like 'Em" and the ode to masturbation "Bad To Myself" - even down to the obligatory social comment song "His Story" (whose chorus chord sequence is the same as that of ABC's "The Look Of Love" but whose lyrics reflect a reality as opposed to a deconstruction) in which she cackles "before we become his-story!" And like "The Look Of Love," the chorus repeats itself instrumentally at the end of the album, over which Left Eye issues a Public Information Announcement about the Importance of Safe Sex. She sounds as though she is ejaculating while declaiming. The delivery subverts the message and imposes one of greater dimensions in its place.

On their next album, 1995's CrazySexyCool, they were clearly advised to "mature." It's a considerably quieter album, but not necessarily without menace; the song "Creep," which remains the best song written entitledf "Creep," is a shadowplay of two two-timing partners manoeuvering to avoid each other, and perhaps cancel each other out. Generally, though, the record is far too well-behaved; there is the usual R&B album Achilles' heel of too many damn ballads, and this album's essay on social commentary, the big hit "Waterfalls," is a little too polite, though its warily stealthy girl-group approach interestingly foreshadows what All Saints would get up to a few years later. For every artfully dirty seduction like "Diggin' On You" (with its pleading/enticing slide guitar refrain) there is a pointless karaoke stroll through Prince's holy "If I Was Your Girlfriend." Significantly, Left Eye only really makes herself known towards the album's end, after an uproarious "interlude" with Busta Rhymes, and driving some much-needed nails into the track "Switch."

Eventually it was inevitable that TLC would have to face their audience. This they did in 1999's Fanmail, where they work so hard on self-belief that it turns into a fortress which imprisons them, cutting off all external feeds. Presumably this was the idea behind the fourth "virtual" member, Vic-E, symbolising what you want them to be, concealing what they actually are. They decry passion (the ironic title track, which could easily have fitted on Kid A), reject received ideas of the Other ("Silly Ho" with its insane and brilliant doorbell hook), reject those who fail to live up to the expectations imposed on them ("No Scrubs"), laugh at the possibility of the existence of "love" - "I'm Good At Being Bad," where each verse opens with a facsimile of a gloopy ballad which Left-Eye then proceeds to detonate with a terrible chuckle. No, all I want is a 20-inch dick. That's all THAT MATTERS. The rest is BULLSHIEEET.

You know what the consequences are. "I Miss You So Much" for one. "Unpretty" for an unavoidable two; perhaps the most disturbing song in the TLC canon. Consider - just who is the "you" who is/are making TLC feel so unpretty and insecure with your pressures upon them? Is it the "audience" who put them there? Is it the listener, smugly waiting for some more dick jokes? Is it a Dworkin-style assault on men in general? We play for you and you turn us into dots on a VDU screen. Despite more attempts at defiance in "My Life" and more mischief in "Shout," the desperation doesn't really retreat, and we are finally left in un-ironic ballad land with distraught bullets of self-hatred like "Dear Lie" ("Dear Lie, you suck"), and, the last humiliation, now reduced to pleading with the Other in their own terms ("Don't Pull Out On Me Yet"). Frankly it's difficult to see exactly TLC could have gone from there.

The heartbreaking thing about the four tracks on the new 13-track CD which involve Left Eye is that they seem to be so much more playful. "Quickie" for instance is one of their finest and funniest deconstructions of male flaccidity. "Girl Talk" and "Over Me" are dynamic, attacking pop. Even the closing ballad "Give It To Me While It's Hot" has enough spikes in its wheels to engage your interest. And some of this spreads over to a couple of the other post-Left Eye tracks here. The opening title track, for instance, runs on a surprisingly bouncy 2-step beat, and "So So Dumb" might well be their most pointed attack on Stupid Men on record.

But for all of this, the rest of the album does not engage. "In Your Arms Tonight" is the obligatory Neptunes track, but this is very drearily workaday by their standards. "Dirty Dirty" is the equally obligatory Timbaland track, and while terrific in itself it is simply on the wrong album; it should have been on Missy E's Under Construction, as it is an Elliott track in all but name (perhaps do a swap with the TLC track on the latter). The rest is forgettable ballad fodder; the tribute to Left Eye "Turntable," however hearffelt, does not even begin to touch me; worse, the album's other big ballad "Damage" takes its general structure from Air Supply's "All Out Of Love."

Perhaps I'm too harsh. Objectively, just over half of this album does contain music worth hearing, which even more objectively makes the album worth buying, or at least downloading. But it seems symptomatic of a mind, a group, in pieces, as if this album was something they were forced to make to meet the end-of-year seasonal quotas. It might have been a better idea to release a Greatest Hits album and add the four Left-Eye tracks on at the end, rather than just going through the record company motions. Sadly, it is through her memory that TLC as a whole will be remembered.


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