Would it be rash or premature to declare the music producer obsolete? Relatively speaking, we’ve only begun to appreciate the impact of the Digital Age, but as the widespread availability of information narrows the gap between the commoner and the credentialed, the thought of the producer going the way of the milkman and the travel agent doesn’t seem too inconceivable. Nowadays, commissioning an outside party to lend an ear and some suggestions already seems more like a luxury than the rule of thumb that it once was, and, for better or worse, the omnipotent supremacy of technology and the endlessly accommodative opportunities now afforded to anybody with a song has ushered in a larger trend in which the middleman is often being bypassed altogether.
Granted, save for a handful of fat cats who managed to establish their predominance with either a distinctive/pioneering recording technique or the megastardom of those artists for whom they provide services, hitting the daily grind as a producer was never the most lucrative sector of the industry. Still, engineering and nurturing a musician through the recording process was always an art form in its own right, and even if you couldn’t list the heavy hitters on your resumé, twiddling the knobs for somebody who wanted to make a splash always held the potential for steady work. But as the do-it-yourself ethic has disseminated from beyond the margins of commercialism to pervade every nook and cranny of the music biz, I’m wondering if we’re beginning to relinquish some fundamental stance we may have generally once held concerning the value of refinement.
Fair or not, realizing that a band’s tangible gauge of accomplishment is sublimated with the blood, sweat, and tears of somebody behind the glass often cements in my mind an identity. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t sense that singularity in all of those EPs that Altered Zones recommends I download from Bandcamp. Obviously, I think that the subversion of the corporate grasp having snowballed from the fringes of progressive geographical locales to the larger culture is beneficial and exciting, and I sympathize with the idea that art and the creation of art should be inclusive, but does that mean our art should be lazy? Okay, the anal-retentive artist bent on fine-tuning his craft will always be with us, but how many kids out there started a band after listening to Times New Viking, giddy with pipe-dreams chock-full of swooning fans and a recording contract?
Sensibly enough, then, a stodgy wet blanket like me would find refreshment in the evocative and heartwrenching transparency of How to Dress Well. Assuming this isn’t the first time you’ve accessed the internet in the past six months, this solo project of one Tom Krell has probably crossed your radar at some point, having dizzied every other inch of the blogosphere’s bottomless capacity into a flutter. The seven EPs he has released gratis over the last year haven’t exactly sounded unidentifiable, but if your raison d’être is to rhapsodize about every hairsplitting flavor of the month as if it were something as seminal as Windows 95, whatever subgenre How to Dress Well is attempting to incarnate is probably just as pedantic and cliquish as chillwave or witch house (?).
But all of Krell’s giveaways along with Love Remains, a full-length containing songs first featured on those same EPs, sound infinitely more timeless and less contrived than the flitting popularity of Krell’s memetic buddies. Aside from the brownie points he’s already earned by not affixing a washed-out, vintage family photograph to the cover of Love Remains, the album glooms with the percipience of someone who has experienced the complicated nature of human relationships. But what he has to say — that which might serve as the substructure through which the listener could contextualize the music — takes a backseat to the instrumentation and the floaty modulations of his voice. From the sound of things, he has probably succeeded through his shaping of this project’s acoustic personality in articulating those emotions from which these songs originated. And that quality, unlike the bandwagon kindling of his peers, is what has me so rattled.
In an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year, Krell elucidated, “I don’t know if you’ve tried to parse any of the lyrics in How to Dress Well but they’re mostly not there.” Even a noncommittal acquaintance with his music will assent to the underwhelming accuracy of that explanation; an isolated phrase will glimmer here and a barely discernible sweet nothing will materialize there, but most of his vocals are hopelessly muddled amongst a pall of lo-fi atmosphere. But that disorganization is illusory. Because here the true vocation of How to Dress Well becomes clear; as Krell’s vocal cadences weave impeccably through the fog, forming a quivering helix of stirring melody, the veracity of his admission begins to assume a wonderfully simple logic. The lyrics won’t make or break the listener’s experience — they probably won’t even really facilitate a better understanding of Krell’s frame of mind. In fact, he admits in the same interview that How to Dress Well is “a lot more about sound design than [his] personality,” vindicating his proclivity for singing impromptu lyrics.
Necessarily, then, the mood that he is able to orchestrate throughout Love Remains sufficiently represents his nonverbal communication skills. Regardless of whether or not his “writing” really does fly as much by the seat of its pants as he attests, his musical composition is infused with purposeful consideration and assiduity, expressive and lyrical enough to compensate for the diluted vocals.
How to Dress Well has most often been described as a distorted take on R&B, and I suppose that’s most accurate, too. Love Remains substantiates the hearsay with slow, soulful requiems that begin to feel like lovingly sculpted effigies of some of the genre’s more immortal catalysts. Despite the obfuscated subject matter, Krell was almost immediately construed as a pained romantic thanks to his channeling of Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and other such crown jewels, and Love Remains relies on a nexus of relatively soft rock running through each song: redundant, voluble verses, theatrical choruses, and sedate tempos. But the tranquil melodies and the standard silky production techniques of typical R&B patterns have been purposely renounced here. Instead, the bones left intact have been lacquered with a shapeless glaze, creating a clammy, waterlogged din.
This fractured effect can be a distraction at times, but the opacity also elevates and furthers the thread of loss or tragedy throughout. The noise hangs thick like a dark shroud, obscuring the songs’ twists and turns and casting eerie silhouettes of their untouched selves. That is, the lo-fi approach is excusably functional here; the music of How to Dress Well has been conscientiously and intentionally (and sort of paradoxically) refined to a state of rawness. If anybody else had told Pitchfork “I’m not just in my dorm room on a four-track — I’m working these recordings to sound exactly how I want them to sound,” it might have come across as a preemptive excuse for engaging rudimentary techniques and ending up with a rudimentary product. But there is fascinating personality in the music of How to Dress Well.
A lot of songwriters attempt to transport listeners through an emotionally taxing or involved moment. Krell’s laborious engineering instead freeze-frames the inevitable irresolution that lingers long after such a moment passes: there isn’t much that is heated or intense about Love Remains. In the stunning “Ready for the World,” the solitary, cutoff vocal samples correlate with the faltering pitch of Krell’s breathy falsetto. Soft, tremulous notes drip through “Suicide Dream 2” like recently coagulated beads, the fade-out of one note hardly discernible from the appearance of the next. The sonorous chant of “Date of Birth,” the simple repetition of a bar of piano throughout “Escape Before the Rain,” every shrill, directionless wail and world-weary observation propagates the same cold, unsettling state of feeling. Really, Love Remains only ever intimates a mood swing with the snappy “Mr. Bye and Bye” and “You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Goin’,” which is so sporadically blistered with static that it sounds as if it is teetering on the brink of self-destruction.
In early September, Krell posted to his blog a reminder of Love Remains’ approaching release date. Along with the announcement, he tossed in an unspecific blurb regarding the future releases of some new EPs. If you’ll recall, it was about this time last year that he dropped his first one; his productivity as How to Dress Well has met the voraciously up-to-the-minute trend lines of the Web 2.0 culture that has so claimed him. But, more importantly, he has established with his chillingly evocative and powerful songs a lasting credibility that, thankfully, extends far beyond our notions of what is vogue. After Love Remains, I for one am very much looking forward to the release of those next EPs.