Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Sol-Angel & The Hadley Dreams": Solange's Masterpiece

BeyoncĂ©'s surface level infatuation with Diana Ross is well documented. Her sister Solange has actually listened and reworked the sound print of that Motown siren for Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (2008),  her second LP after 2003's Solo Star.

The title draws its name from a street in Houston, Texas where her Svengali father, Matthew Knowles, had his recording studio. The record was a welcome sucker punch to my musical senses, evidence that there are still surprises left in music today.

Caution, this isn't just a retro makeover via stolen soul from the U.K. kewpie doll assembly line of Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and Adele. Solange succeeds due to marrying her own personal experiences through her songwriting, with assistance from fresh and familiar talent. Known producers include the U.K. dance-pop drivers The Freemasons, Mark Ronson (the man behind the success of Winehouse's pastiche), and The Neptunes (who end their creative drought here). The first single "I Decided, Part 1" is full of gutsy glam and powdery soul, listeners will undoubtedly remove their headphones with the sugary remains of this banger in their ears.

The Neptunes, who've been lacking the last few years, redeemed themselves with this day-glo soul number they produced. Yet, the relative newcomer Jack Splash, along with the established, yet unsung, producing duo Soulshock & Karlin nail some of Sol-Angel's best and defining moments.

See "T.O.N.Y." ("The Other Night Why"), where Splash arranges soulful lines of guitar and smooth bass to grant Solange the canvas to assertively, and sensitively, bring across the fallout of a one night stand. The romantic conflict isn't healed, thankfully, but playfully cast on "Sandcastle Disco," produced by Soulshock & Karlin. Lyrically, Solange manages to be both the bulletproof heroine and helpless damsel in the name of love. All of these ideas over a cool, hastened back beat and melodic pop swatches make a recipe for aural infatuation.

"Sandcastle Disco
Directed By: Solange

Solange's voice is the star real star of Sol-Angel & The Hadley Street Dreams. She occupies tarty curiosity on "Would've Been the One," whereas confusion colors her delivery on "Valentine's Day." The chatter of Solange lacking vocally are from individuals in need of re-examining the black female approach to song, because Solange is all nuance and expression here. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information on Solange, visit]

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

George Michael's Moody Masterpiece "Older"

Out of adversity comes positivity, for George Michael the 1990's began tumultuously. Bouts with his sexual identity, the loss of his partner Anselmo Feleppa, and a legal blowout with his label Epic Records inspired George Michael to create his third album Older (1996).

The album locked Michael in as a top notch talent in pop throughout Europe and England, while America didn't know what to make of it. Despite this, Older is a testament of Michael's uncanny knack of making his human experience our sonic soundtrack.

George Michael had wanted his audience in 1990 to "listen without prejudice," and majority of the global music market did when Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 was released that year. Except America. His second solo album, an exquisite challenge, fell on lukewarm ears. America had already decided that Faith (1987) could never be topped, even by obviously superior material. This led Michael to move against his label Epic Records, accusing them of promotional bankruptcy, and he lost the misguided crusade. He signed with Virgin Records (British, international markets) and the now closed DreamWorks Records in America. Both labels allowed Michael a greater creative control than ever before.

However, with the passing of his partner Anselmo Feleppa, another layer of turmoil fueled the creation of Older that detailed Michael's life from 1993 through 1996.

The Record
George Michael wasted no time establishing his credentials in writing, arranging, composing, and producing his own work on his debut and sophomore albums. George Michael's pop functioned within a sturdy blue-eyed soul frame. Older exhumed the moodier elements present behind every coy and flirty jam he created in the past. Jon Douglas, longtime friend and musical partner, co-created with Michael on certain songs.

Assembling a golden range of musicians was imtegral: Steve Sidwell (trumpet), Andy Hamilton (saxophone), Fayyaz Virji (trombone), Stuart Brooks (trumpet, flugel horn),  and Chris Cameron (string arrangements, Fender Rhodes, electric piano, additional keyboards).

The importance of these musicians is apparent in the horn section within the desolate, but hopeful album closer, "You Have Been Loved." Michael's warm vocal coloring is haunting, as he sang about someone losing faith in God after their child dies. Michael's voice splendidly comforted and matched the emotional intensity of the mournful horns without melisma.

The stickiness of love, fidelity, and sexuality are addressed on the nu-jazz of "Spinning the Wheel" and the heady disco thrust of "Fastlove." "Fastlove" made dutiful use of Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Not's" which Will Smith sampled during the same period in his hit "Men In Black" from his Big Willie Style (1997) LP. Michael's poignancy on "Jesus to a Child," was a stunning portrayal of the eloquence of spirituality in love, and is the finest ballad he's recorded.  An amalgamation of pop flavors, Older was Michael's leanest album in terms of representing quality in such a tight package.

The Impact
Released to the world on 5/14/96, the album had huge success in the United Kingdom with its six singles, two of them double-A-sides: "Jesus to a Child" (10/9/95-U.K. #1), "Fastlove" (4/22/96-U.K. #1), "Spinning the Wheel" (8/19/96-U.K. #2), "Older/I Can't Make You Love Me" (1/20/97-U.K. #3), "Star People '97"* (4/28/97-U.K. #2), "You Have Been Loved/The Strangest Thing" (9/8/97-U.K. #2).  This run made Michael the first artist in British music history to place six singles at the #1, #2, #3 spots on the British charts from one record. The Older album achieved majority of its platinum scores in England where it perched at #1. It has currently shifted 12 million copies to date.

"Spinning the Wheel"
Directed By: Vaughn Arnell & Anthea Benton

In the U.S., Michael's commercial decline and critical indifference continued. "Jesus to a Child" and "Fastlove" both charted at #7 and #6 respectively on the U.S. Hot 100.  The album itself charted at #6 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and certified gold.  American critics didn't take to Michael's stark musings as well as their British counterparts. All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called the LP "...a bid for artistic credibility," furthering his skepticism with "It is one thing to be mature and another to be boring. Too often, Michael mistakes slight melodies for mature craftsmanship and Older never quite recovers."

Despite the dwindling of George Michael's U.S. audience, he continued to find success in his recording career well into this decade globally. Currently engaged in his TwentyFive Live World Tour, which rekindled his relationship with his hot and cold U.S. fans. One can ponder why one audience connected to Michael in his difficult, shining hour, and another didn't in 1996. Older depicted George Michael at his peak, one that has yet to be eclipsed. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information on George Michael, visit *-"Star People '97" was remixed for its single release with a sample of The Gap Band's cut "Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me?)," and differs from the album version initially released in 1996.-QH]