How to Dress Well

(Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Love Remains (2010), 7/10
Total Loss (2012), 5/10
What Is This Heart? (2014), 5/10
Care (2016), 4/10
The Anteroom (2018), 6/10

New York's musician Tom Krell debuted his project How to Dress Well on Love Remains (Lefse, 2010), a collection of slow-motion ballads sung in an androgynous falsetto that seem to crawl slowly out of a drug addict's devastated psyche. The spectral lullaby You Hold The Water plows a skinny voodoo beat and shrill electronic drones. The extent of psychic devastation is revealed by Ready For The World, in which the agonizing lament is swimming in a digital soundscapea of stuttering bass lines and catatonic beats like a solitary castaway adrift in a shoreless ocean; and, in fact, after a few mermaid calls the keyboards intones a sedate version of Suicide's threnodies. Can't See My Own Face and My Body are so spartan and ethereal (with the most trivial of beats) that their atmosphere borders on abstract psychedelia. Lover's Start replaces the beats with the looped riff of an electric guitar while the vocals similarly loop around a dilated melody. Suicide Dream 2 and Suicide Dream 1 dispose with the beats altogether, and the vocals' ecstatic noir approaches a very advanced stage of neurosis. The duet of Decicions, however, seems to reference ancient exotic ceremonies and a twisted form of spirituality. A bit of relief comes from the ambient piano lied Escape Before The Rain, in which Krell seems to come to term with his own madness.
On the more lively side of things, a casually strummed guitar accompanies an almost Beach Boys-esque melody in You Won't Need Me Where I'm Goin, and the stomping electronic blues of Walking This Dumb (a standout) duets with the sounds of alien nature. However, it is telling that Krell doesn't do much with the most dance-oriented rhythms (Date Of Birth, Endless Rain, Mr By & By).
The songs are deliberately produced like bedroom music, peppered with the hiss and static of analog LPs (to reflect the artist's damaged stat of mind?) Krell is the Nick Drake of post-dubstep pop-soul music.

Love Remains as a collection of lo-fi soul ballads, but the EP Just Once (Love Letters, 2011) boasted an almost baroque sound by his standards.

The production was almost exactly the opposite of "lo-fi" on Total Loss (Acephale, 2012). Its intimate atmosphere is set by the funereal, subaquatic and almost gothic When I Was in Trouble, "embellished" with terrifying electronic sounds. The swampy rhythm and the sophisticated arrangements that blow life into Cold Nites ruin that magic, but at the same time they create a totally new landscape, a music that seamlessly bridges trip-hop and Enya. If the dreamy and ethereal Say My Name or Say Whatever belongs more to the latter than the former (albeit augmented with the minimalist repetition of a Steve Reich-ian piano), the former, or a deformed variant of the former, imbues much of the rest without enough inspiration or emotion to sustain the interest. The material is weak: sometimes Krell sounds too neurotic (Set It Right, with an oceanic crescendo che could have made it the anthem of the album) and sometimes naively derivative (the Michael Jackson-ian & It Was U?)

There are really two albums in What Is This Heart? (Weird World, 2014): one is about the vocals and the lyrics, which is mildly entertaining because of Krell's vocal skills but mostly derivative and yawn-inspiring, and the other one is about the soundscapes created by the electronic arrangements (a collaborative effort with producer Rodaidh McDonald). As far as the first album goes, 2 Years On and especially See You Fall stretch his ductile falsetto to the limit, but Krell's lethargic crooning is more a weapon of mass destruction than an asset. As far as the second album goes, the zenith is the single Face Again, littered with sound effects and backed by distorted backing vocals (and never mind the cheesy refrain), but there are several other attempts at sculpting outside the box, such as the neoclassical symphonic strings in Pour Cyril. The catchy Precious Love (that borrows the beat from Beyonce's "Irreplaceable") disposes with the vocal hystrionics, minimizes the production effects, and ends up being the hit du jour. Too many of the songs are filler.

Care (Weird World, 2016), mostly produced by Jack Antonoff, is a singer-songwriter album haunted by Krell's Michael Jackson-ian falsetto. The singles Lost Youth Lost You and What's Up seem to have been chosen deliberately to hurt Krell's career: they are the worst of his career. Luckily, the album contains better material: the catchy mellow Canít You Tell, the cinematic The Ruins, and the lively Salt Song, arranged by Dre Skull with surf guitar and prog-rock bombast. But at least half of the songs are worthless. This should have been a four-song EP.

Sometimes failure is useful, as rebirth generally requires first a crisis of some sort. Krell was reborn on The Anteroom (Domino, 2018), recorded after he relocated to Los Angeles. The songs here have almost nothing in common with the pop-soul crap of previous albums. They are painstakingly arranged kammerspiel like Humans Disguised as Animals / Nonkilling 1. Krell crafts his most dystopian soundscapes (notably the second half of Nonkilling 3 / The Anteroom / False Skull 1 and drops his falsetto litanies in his most memorable cinematic settings (notably, A Memory, The Spinning of a Body / Nonkilling 2). He seems to mock himself with the dreamy hyper-high falsetto and the hysterical strings of Brutal / False Skull 5. And for those with a short attention span, the album also includes the catchy ditty Nonkilling 6 / Hunger over a galactic house beat, as well as the simple whispered ballad Love Means Taking Action.

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(Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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