How to Dress Well releases instant indie classic
Music Review | 4.5 out of 5 stars
Published: Monday, October 15, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 15, 2012 08:10
R&B continues to infiltrate the world of indie music, with bands like the xx listing Aaliyah as a major influence and Frank Ocean rising to superstardom with his pensive tracks. How to Dress Well’s second album, “Total Loss,” furthers this phenomenon by using the R&B framework to create an artistic and somewhat challenging work that has become an overnight indie classic.
It’s hard to give an accurate description of How to Dress Well’s music. Lead singer and project creator, Tom Krell, sounds like a spectral Michael Jackson, a drugged−out Justin Bieber and a paranoid−underground Usher all at the same time. His voice is marvelous, but the detached, ambient aspects of his songs are what make him such an interesting young talent and a driving force in today’s indie music.
One of the album’s first high points in the narcotizing “Cold Nites.” The track sounds very much like a James Blake record produced by Pharrell, or like Justin Vernon filtered through the Weeknd. It instantaneously creates a melancholy atmosphere that swallows the listener with its delicate and seductive harmonies. About two and a half minutes into the song, the drums explode and show how potent the band’s sound can be, before simply fading away to bird noises.
The song leads into “Say My Name or Say Whatever,” which starts off with a young boy talking about how much he loves flying because he can escape his life. He ends the monologue with, “The only bad part of flying is having to come back down,” before the sound of someone falling into water is heard.
It is an effective little skit because it sets up the tone of the album in a concise speech, demonstrating that the music is somewhat magical, yet not magical enough to completely escape the real world. How to Dress Well’s sound lives in a strange purgatory between these two worlds.
The melodies of the album have a nostalgic and hazy feel to them. On first listen they sound as if they were taken from some generic, yet impossible−to−place ’90s R&B tune, like a lost Destiny’s Child number that never quite broke through. This all plays into the foggy and muddled aesthetic that How to Dress Well seeks to generate. Krell is trying to create a state of waking−dream with his songs, which are seeped in both sadness and unbounded possibility.
One of the songs that sticks out most on the album is “& It Was U.” The track drops much of the echo and reverb that dominate the record, exchanging them for a simpler sound. Unmanipulated vocals, a plain drum and snaps control the song and create a catchy and different experience. It sounds like a classic R&B song that had the majority of its instrumentation stripped away. By leaving the listener with the skeletal remains, it shows how forceful a solitary melody can be.
Though the album has numerous high points, another particularly stellar track is the penultimate song, “Set it Right.” The song features an arrangement that sounds like someone shoved a Stevie Wonder record through an industrial−sized distorter. The vocals are slowed and affected to the point where the singer sounds inhuman.
How to Dress Well’s divine singing is then played over all of this. Krell employs some of his most emotional vocals here. Toward the end of the song, all the noise ceases and all that remains is Krell sorrowfully singing the names of all the people he has lost. It’s wrenching to hear, and just when it feels like the emotions are going to overpower the whole song, the instrumentation smashes in again even stronger than before. It’s all masterfully accomplished and makes the listener want to step back and truly take in what How to Dress Well has just done.
“Total Loss” is an album that requires multiple listens for the listener to catch all of its nuances and emotions. It is also one that rewards audiences who give it a more careful listen, as it is unafraid of subtlety in certain spots. With this release, How to Dress Well continues to make sensational music that cuts to the core of deep−seated and complex human emotions.