Sharps & Flats is a weekly music review roundup in Salon Magazine. Featured this week are TLC, Ben Lee, Dusty Springfield, and Hugues Cuinod.

Published March 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

One thing's for sure -- the TLC "Behind the Music" is going to kick ass. The ingredients are all there, from the professional achievements (1992's "Oooooooh ... On The TLC Tip" and 1994's "CrazySexyCool" made Left Eye, Chilli and T-Boz the biggest-selling female trio of all time) to the private turmoil (contractual hassles, bankruptcy, Left Eye's arson arrest, T-Boz's struggle with sickle cell anemia). And finally, there's resurgence. Turns out the whomping summer single "Silly Ho," which called presumptuous punks on the carpet, then dismissed them with a game-show buzzer, was a mere warning shot, suggesting the giddily commercial charm of "Fanmail" without actually demonstrating it. Throbbing with a programmed pulse borrowed from techno by way of Timbaland -- swirling with delicate sampled vocal tics, the title track blip-hops like Fembot Slim -- "Fanmail" is calculating but never cold, from the CD insert (collaged with what we're told are the names of actual TLC fans!) to indelible sugar-cereal pop songs like "Unpretty" (which trumps both Alanis and Britney Spears at their respective New Girl Order games).

"I'm Good at Being Bad" starts out like a too-precious Quiet Storm ballad, then surges without warning into a lowdown groove derived from the most menacing sex song of all time, Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby." It's the kind of bait-and-switch that's marked TLC's art since "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," when they were safe-sex evangelists who (jarringly) dressed like pre-teens, and when Left Eye starts growling the "B" and "N" words like they're goin' out of style, the joy she and her bandmates take in singing sweet and acting rude is contagious. Ditto the symphonic/sarcastic "No Scrubs," and "Dear Lie," where the instrumental is Babyface auditioning to produce Don Henley, but the lyric ("Dear lie/You suck ... I'm fucked") is punk-rock personification in slow-jam couture. They just keep pulling the rug out, to the point where tracks like "I Miss You So Much" come off like setups for jokes that never come.

As a whole, the love jams are weak. You miss the audacity of their no-pronoun-games remake of Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend," the buppie-jazz overtones that cued their man-objectifyin' "Red Light Special" video and the vengeful eroticism of a song like "Creep" (a career peak for both TLC and the Afghan Whigs, who covered it on a must-hear B-side). And apparently there's no R&B personality compelling enough to make Diane Warren sound ghetto-fab; the Warren-penned "Come on Down" belabors a remarkably weak oral-sex metaphor (something about lakes or rivers but not "Waterfalls") and leaves the ladies sounding like they don't know where to point their sensuality. But for every misfire, there's a perfect, redeeming line -- my favorite has to be "Saw myself on Ricki Lake/Overweight and full of hate," a couplet as sublime, silly and self-deprecating as anything in Jarvis Cocker's book of rhymes. Dense, hectic, sexy, cool, and it's already sold a zillion copies. Sometimes commerce is a beautiful thing.

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Ben Lee

BY LOIS MAFFEO | Poor Ben Lee. First he had to live down the notoriety of being a pubescent pop star. Now he has to contend with the gawking masses who wanna check out Claire Danes' honey. Lad can't win.

Or can he? Sand that old paint away and there sits a clever lyricist and nifty lo-fi composer whose "Breathing Tornados" is a clever take on early-MTV style synth pop. The irrepressible Ben Lee, once content to croon away with a lonely guitar, has elevated his artistic ideals into the range of digital hipness and mosaic electronic pop. The gorgeous "Nighttime," with its James Bond-theme flourishes, is wondrously sexy. The daffy cooking metaphors on the single, "Cigarettes Will Kill You" ("You offer a la carte/You didn't have the heart"), give the piano and drum vamp a darling, deadpan charm. And a weird Harmony Korine monologue creeps in on stocking feet to surprise the power-chord rush of "Nothing Much Happens."

Back in the day of his teen-core band, Noise Addict, and his subsequent solo jaunts, Lee wanted nothing more than to fall madly in love. If there is a downside to the precocious pop of "Breathing Tornados" it's that finding true love has left Lee a little tepid in his lyric sentiments. "You're the only thing I need/The only one on my mind/All the time." Dude! That's why we listened to you in the first place! So we wouldn't have to hear tired lyrics like that anymore! The thought of a teenager working up the courage to call a girl sometimes has more gravity than the strained musings of the confident lad who actually made the call. Call me callous, but I almost look forward to hearing Lee's songs of heartbreak -- as this witty and engaging young man moves through life, surely they will come.

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Dusty Springfield

BY ALEX PAPPADEMAS | If rock 'n' roll never really embraced vocalist Dusty Springfield, who died of breast cancer three weeks ago at the age of 59, maybe it's because she was just too cool. On the new Rhino Records compilation "Dusty in London," Springfield tackles "Piece of my Heart" (here retitled "Take Another Little Piece of My Heart"), the 1968 Big Brother and the Holding Company hit that became a signature song for Janis Joplin. Springfield's is almost the enabler's version -- it's a love dedication, pain aside, and it's miles away from the kind of raw expression Joplin was famous for. Janis, of course, just sang the song like a woman on fire; you don't imagine her sweating the high notes, as Dusty admits to doing in the liner notes here.

In fact, nowhere on "Dusty in London" and Rhino's equally vital re-issue of "Dusty in Memphis" (1968) do you hear the despair, the surrender to irrepressible emotion that supposedly marks the best rock music. Springfield maintained a profoundly feminine voice within the traditionally masculine idiom of blues and soul -- she couldn't really do "grit," but she never really tried, preferring instead to inhabit each song with a degree of expressiveness that never sacrificed grace. Stylistically, she's stepmom to present-day British songbirds like Tracey Thorn and Beth Orton, singers who realize that anything can mean everything if you say it right.

"Dusty in Memphis" paired Springfield, newly signed to Atlantic, pigeonholed (in her words) as a singer of "big ballady things," with a crew of crack R&B session dudes, then, as if to hedge the bet a little, threw in a string section and songs by tried-and-true tunesmiths like Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The end result was weird -- not as weird as Celine Dion jetting down to the Dirty South to work with Outkast would be, but weird. And wonderful. "In Memphis" is as ersatz as the soul-music medleys on Tom Jones' "Live at Caesars Palace," but somehow it's tone-perfect, too -- teasingly sexy ("Breakfast in Bed," and "Son of a Preacher Man," which stirred the Springfield revival a little when it turned up in 1994's "Pulp Fiction") and operatically depressed (Randy Newman's novelistic "I Don't Want to Hear it Anymore"). Dusty wraps herself around the inherent sadness of these songs, acknowledging and transcending, and it's her willingness to engage with these emotions that made her great -- a Goffin-King number like "No Easy Way Down" wouldn't get a more sensitive interpretation until 1995, when Mark Eitzel crooned it on his "60 Watt Silver Lining."

Drawn from pre-"Memphis" recordings that Atlantic, hoping to establish Springfield as a soul singer, chose not to release Stateside, "Dusty in London" is less cohesive, and less consciously "rock." Springfield sings Jobim, Gilberto Gil, ork-country wacko Jimmy Webb and Charles Aznavour. Odd juxtapositions abound: The album's interpretive reach encompasses everything from Leon Russell's "A Song for You," later the title track on a Carpenters album, to "Love Power," later a hit for Luther Vandross. To Dusty's credit, "In London" is more than a mere demonstration of versatility. The funky "Crumbs off the Table" is tougher than anything on "Memphis," and Dusty's version of the Bacharach-David classic "This Girl's in Love With You" may actually smoke Dionne Warwick's.

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Hugues Cuinod

BY BENJAMIN IVRY | For those afraid that the Three Tenors may never retire, it is salutary to hear a 95-year-old tenor, the great Swiss musician Hugues Cuinod, who is still going strong. Cuinod got his start in the '20s replacing Noel Coward in operetta roles, but made his Metropolitan Opera debut at age 85 as the emperor in "Turandot" -- a role he points out he was "a little young" for, as Puccini meant for the emperor to be 10,000 years old.

Cuinod only retired from onstage opera performing at age 92, after a "Eugene Onegin" in Lausanne, but his recitation at age 95 of Babar, by his old friend and colleague Francis Poulenc, is pricelessly funny and dramatic -- indeed, the moment when Babar's mother is shot by a hunter is properly terrifying. Added here are authoritative versions of Poulenc's songs recorded for Swiss radio in 1953 with the composer at the piano, plus a charming interview with the singer: It all adds up to one of the most endearing classical CD releases in a long time. Cuinod, who is 97 this year, explains from his home in Vevey, Switzerland, that he still teaches actively, and plans to travel this summer to Germany. Let's hope some more recording dates are forthcoming.

By Alex Pappademas

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