Review: Sol-Angel & The Hadley Street Dreams

Posted: March 4, 2010 by RA in Music
Tags: , , , ,

Originally posted at Stereohyped in Sep 2008

“I was a little different; I didn’t do what the fast girls do,” Solange says in the opening lines of “I Decided,” the lead single off her sophomore set, Sol-Angel & the Hadley St. Dreams. If you can resist the urge to point out that the fast girls probably used birth control, you’ll find that in many ways, she’s right.

After attempting the fast track to success with a few attempts at R&B-Pop stardom, Solange reinvented herself as the Knowles clan’s in-house songwriter – penning tracks for sister Beyoncé and “sisters” Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams – a dubious honor at best, unless you consider “Get Me Bodied” a high water mark in songwriting achievement.

This is why Sol-Angel is so surprising in its effectiveness and authenticity. In the years since her last album, Knowles’ style and lifestyle choices often came off merely as the rebellion of a teenage girl living in her older sister’s shadow (“Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!”) trying to find her own identity – with all the “be different” earnestness of an angsty teenager.

It’s Beyoncé comparisons like that that Solange sets out to tackle on the album’s sublime opener, “God Given Name” (yes, the lack of hyphenation bothers me too), on which she declares “I’m not her and never will be… I’m no sister, I’m just my God-given name” over a dreamy, space-age soundscape.

It’s full steam ahead from there, as she launches into one upbeat number to the next – starting with the early Motown-inspired “T.O.N.Y.” in which she pines for- and learns from a one-night stand, and climaxing in the devastating one-two punch of “Sandcastle Disco” and “I Decided.” With songwriting assistance from Cee-Lo Green, “Disco” abandons much of the album’s retro leanings for a candy-coated pop sheen, so expertly crafted, all retro allusions are all but forgotten. On the high-octane stomper, “I Decided” The Neptunes offer a new take on their near-decade-long tendency towards sparse, percussion-heavy efforts. Here, Solange’s urgent growls are backed by an undeniable stomp-clap percussive section, lightly punctuated by piano chords and patented Neptunes synths. It’s on this song that you really get the sense of Knowles as a student of golden-age Soul music – melodically reminiscent of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave” and The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” with an infectious “runnin’ me, runnin’ me down” refrain that could’ve been sung by The Marvelettes themselves.

The momentum on this first half of the album is undeniable. Solange revels in these upbeat compositions, where her vocal shortcomings (a little raspy, and sometimes just shy of shrill) often lend the songs a sort of earnest charm beyond the reach of the steely, picture-perfect Beyoncé (™ Kanyé West). It also helps that she doesn’t have her sister’s tendency to for histrionics as a medium for expressing emotion.

Still, this is an album that lives and dies on the production. As the magic of The ‘Tunes, Jack Splash, and Soulshock & Karlin fades into the second half of the disc, songs like “Valentine’s Day” ride almost exclusively on Solange’s charm and wolrd-weary writing. However, on derivative, costume-retro cuts like “Ode to Marvin” and “6 O’ Clock Blues” (produced by the reigning king of costume-retro, Mark Ronson), she’s reduced to an Aguilera-like pop star who thinks anaemic “old-school” production automatically equals “soulful.”

By the time she fully indulges her electronica leanings on the meandering, unfinished-sounding “This Bird” and the ill-advised Bilal duet “Cosmic Journey”, her introspective, self-revelatory moments are drowned out by the tedium of what is, in the end, a result of her inability to self-edit.

She does emerge from the “deep” (as in “girl, you so deep”) end with the sublimely personal “White Picket Dreams,” her apparent press release/open letter to all who are still talking about her whole pre-Bristol Palinizing. Yes, people like me.

In the end, this album is truly an acknowledgement and celebration of Solange’s flaws. By being vocally – and emotionally – imperfect, she’s shown to be far more interesting than all those “fast” girls.

Yes, including Beyoncé.

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