How to Dress Well (HtDW) is the alter-ego of Tom Krell from Brooklyn-and-sometimes-Cologne, who is a philosophy graduate student in his spare time. His first LP, Love Remains, was released on Lefse Records about a year ago after a torrid period of song releases through his blog. His style is a sort of abstracted R&B; it evokes a similar mood but does so with minimal percussion, drone-like arrangements, and ethereal falsetto vocals that are almost uniformly indecipherable. The overall effect is something akin to the soundtrack of a dream or memory … the emotion persists but the details fade into the background.
The “lo-fi” production style that Krell employs has been a common talking point surrounding HtDW. I put quotes around it since the term “low fidelity” was originally intended to signify a recording of poor quality which didn’t actually reflect the content that musicians were trying to convey. These days lo-fi is used more as a catch-all term to represent either production styles that mimic the sound of older recordings (most often from the ‘60s), or people who produce in home studios (“bedroom”, “amateur”, “lap-pop”, etc). HtDW falls into the latter category, but lo-fi is sort of a misnomer in this case since the content is presented exactly as Krell intends. An abundance of reverb and layered vocals are the cornerstones of HtDW’s sonic signature. Effects such as vinyl pops/hisses and blown-out speaker distortion pepper the periphery of the recordings. The noise can be slightly jarring (e.g., “You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Going”), but these sharp edges give extra depth to songs that are often quite simple in their construction. To me, it sounds almost like the songs are distorting themselves in their struggle to escape from the speakers.
There are only a couple of places where the album’s consistency breaks down. At the end of the live recording “Walking This Dumb” (the only such track on the album), the audience breaks into applause. It’s an odd experience which really breaks the musical continuity, and could have just as easily been excised. I’m not exactly sure why he’d choose to leave it in. The other decision I question is the inclusion of “Mr. By and By,” which sounds much more like traditional R&B than the rest of the album. This isn’t to say it’s a bad track, but its driving (I use the term loosely) beat feels forced given the otherwise languid pace of the album. These aren’t major faults, but they do bear mention.
The album’s title, Love Remains, seems to almost be an attempt to counterbalance the overwhelming sense of melancholy that pervades the work. Even though the lyrics are indecipherable with rare exception, song titles like “Suicide Dream” (two of them), “You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Going”, and “Can’t See My Own Face” don’t conjure images of rainbows and unicorns. In a certain sense the lack of vocal definition is a boon, since it allows the listener to simply appreciate the beauty of the music. With such spare arrangements, well-defined vocals would dominate the tracks. I don’t want to say that HtDW couldn’t succeed with that type of song, but it would be a fundamentally different approach to songcraft. One of the strengths of the album is its accessibility, since it doesn’t make many demands of the listener to decipher cryptic lyrics or parse complex musical structures.
For a first official album, Love Remains is remarkably cohesive. This could be attributed to the large body of work Krell created prior to its release, but I think the more important factor is how well he has defined the aesthetic he wants to cultivate for HtDW. For me, and I assume many others, Love Remains sort of appeared out of nowhere in 2010. Now that the (small) spotlight is on, I’m extremely curious to see how Krell chooses to develop the HtDW sound on his next full-length.