Wat a strange, interesting little album. In as many respects that it conforms to the conventional expectations of contemporary pop music, that is, pop music made for radio-friendly, TRL-receptive audiences, it also defies such simplistic categorization. Much like, apparently, Stella Soleil herself.
Stella’s story is almost important to appreciating this album as the music on it. A trained dancer who began a music career by accident, Stella’s background is as unique as that of any other pop diva. Through stubbornness and perseverance, she managed to get herself a job in the recording industry which she then used to create her own label, her own band, and acquire a recording contract. She sang back-up for bands like Ministry, 16 Volt, and Chemlab. When it was time for her to record her own music, her band Sister Soleil managed to get signed on at major label Universal.
Sister Soleil was a strange, interesting band as well. Combining techno and industrial sounds with dubs and loops, a tinge of goth, and a hint of pop, the band released one album for Universal, 1998’s Soularium. While such a combination of sounds might not seem like the most innovative music out there, the album’s strength lay in the fact that the songs were, for the most part, extremely distinct with one another. While one song might opt for a goth dance floor edge of Eastern rhythms and chant, the next took a dive towards hip-hop, and still another towards mainstream radio pop. It might be that Sister Soleil’s strength in experimentation and variety was also their weakness, creating a disjointed collection whose mood shifted too much, but for whatever reasons, the band was dissolved and Stella began working on her solo project.
Fans of Sister Soleil might be surprised, and maybe more than a little disappointed, that Stella’s solo disc weighs heavier in the direction of formulaic radio pop than it does towards aural experiments. It’s difficult while listening to Dirty Little Secrets to reconcile that this same person ever sang on a Ministry track. But if the listener manages to keep an open mind about the whole thing, a comparison between Stella Soleil now and those who sell bubblegum records to teens shows that Stella has a whole lot more to offer.
True, songs like “Kiss, Kiss”, “You”, “Angel Face”, and kooky, yet fun, “Let’s Go to Bed” (a bizarre cross of Britney and Ani DiFranco), would probably sell as soundtracks from a summer teen movie. True, the record was manipulated and polished by a round of big time producers. But for all that, there is enough originality and depth to this collection of songs that it doesn’t sink under a saccharine weight. Here and there the airy tones of luminaries like the Cocteau Twins (a band Stella cut her teeth on) and Danielle Dax shine through. At other moments more mainstream comparisons could be made to Meredith Brooks or even a less raw Alanis. Songs like “Imperfect” even bring to mind Garbage in their lighter moments.
First and foremost this is a pop album. Despite the intimacy and personality that Stella brings to these tracks, they’re all variations on love songs and there’s only so much room to maneuver in pop love songs anymore. Yet Stella herself is sexy and beautiful in a way that the current crop of airbrushed teens can?t even begin to understand. She even manages to make these songs seem genuine, which they are, but it’s rare that you actually believe a Mandy Moore or Jessica Simpson when they croon about the depth of their love. So for what Dirty Little Secrets is, it’s a pleasant surprise that it’s so well done.
The media kit for Dirty Little Secrets quotes Stella saying, “I wanted to prove you could make a record that concentrated on songcraft but that was still fun, something you could listen to and love and even dance to, but not hate yourself in the morning. I think I did that.” And the strange, interesting thing about Dirty Little Secrets is that for all the lightweight moments, for the fluff around the good stuff, she actually managed to achieve this goal.