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Mr. Airplane Man
Mr. Airplane Man
(Altitude Records)

Digging into the old school for inspiration and authenticity is increasingly popular, but the Boston duo Mr. Airplane Man need make nary a scratch: They've already found some deep roots. With one foot planted in the hazy dissonance of art-punk and the other settled firmly in gritty, down-home Mississippi blues, they manage to convincingly work the music of two genres into a narcotic blend of raw power and boundless emotional spirit. Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus are certainly well rehearsed; they raised their music on the sidewalks, in front of liquor stores and in the subways of Boston. But lurking in the pulse of McManus's tribal drum rhythms and the raunchy snaking of Garrett's slide guitar riffs (not to mention her erotic, growling vocals), is a rare, respectable, and nearly psychic grasp of the soul music of a bygone era.

The duo's debut release, a self-titled eight-song EP, spills over with the rage and enthusiasm of youth as they take the droning atmospheres of modern space-rock back a few strides in time. Covers of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Sun Sinkin' Low" and Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' for My Baby" sound authentic and inspired, though the duo really shines on their own originals. "Rain So Hard" flows along slow and steady, with Garrett's voice oozing over the edges of a hazy, finger-picked repetitive musical phrase. "Baby" rocks starkly with primal drumming and dirty slide riffs. But Mr. Airplane Man's version of the traditional "Jesus on the Mainline" is the grand achievement here, a foggy traveling tune that drones eternally like some Velvet Underground-ish trip.

On one level the recording stays true to traditional old blues styles, but as the EP (partially recorded by Morphine's Mark Sandman) unfolds, the cloudy, distorted beauty of art-punk creeps in unannounced and carries the music deeper into a dark but oh-so-irresistible level of soul music. And the combination of the two styles, when approached by these two women, is at once gratifyingly honest and strikingly emotive.

-- Mark Watt

Mr. Airplane Man opens for Morphine, Friday March 19 at the Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach. Call 561-833-7305 or see "Concerts" page 107 for details.

TLC
Fanmail
(LaFace/Arista)

Peering from the cover like a troika of Kraftwerkesque Smurfs, TLC follows up the gazillion-selling CrazySexyCool with Fanmail, a disc pleasantly front-loaded with precocious attempts to goose the sometimes staid R&B crossover market. Although the record is still well rooted in the kind of pop/hip-hop/smooth-R&B aesthetic that will rack up sales whether it's formula dreck or not, TLC also uses beats as innovative as the latest No Limit or Timbaland creations. The title track as well as "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 basslines, 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 show an awareness of hip-hop's now sounds: The lead single, "No Scrubbs," adapts the bounce sound to schmoover ends, and just when the band seems ready to descend into diva fluff during the intro to "I'm So Good at Being Bad," the song rapidly transitions into aggressive hip-hop, creating a moment of high claustrophobia more reminiscent of Tricky than Puff Daddy.

Shying away from trivial subject matter such as what this record actually sounds like, some observers use TLC as an excuse to discuss the ever-shifting feminine ideal. They interpret the group's 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 with standard fingerpointing (i.e., nose jobs, hair extensions) and atypical self-flagellation ("At the end of the day I have myself to blame"). "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 (her www.lefteye.com Website posts "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 messages have 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," and is rebutted two songs later by Rozonda "Chili" Thomas, who croons, "Want to get with me with no money?/Oh no, I don't want no scrub," it's probably nothing deeper than the puppeteer's manufactured attitude.

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