The brackish, rhythmic pulse thumps so severely that it sounds as though the speakers are set to implode. The chords underneath them trundle over hissing static and spectral density, utterly pulverizing Tom Krell’s voice as his clarion tones comb along the surface, a defenseless ursine cub treading water among a seething and polluted veneer. “Walking This Dumb” is the only live recording from Love Remains, and it embodies a core example of how this humble practitioner sought to encapsulate his lo-fi design, which radically collapses into frantic cheering and applaud from the audience, along with a passing comment about the hulking level of distortion. The approach was dauntless and enthralling, an audacious move in every sense that saw the panache of contemporary R&B trawled through analogue cluttering and tape hiss, which sounded like the music was breaking into pieces as it simultaneously evoked a practiced and elating aesthetic.
Meanwhile, an alluring violinist tilts her neck slightly to the right and glances at the singer as he flaunts falsetto, this time for a track that appears on his new album Total Loss in studio form. In this live instance, percussion is fashioned from a Remo kit, bass from magical sul ponticello, and keys from dainty yet playful piano fingering, collectively assembled in a clean-cut mix with arresting qualities that may even surpass those of that busted noise jam displayed on the debut. The affect is quite remarkable; Krell’s knack for writing a beautiful refrain and lifting his results from the page have rarely felt more angelic than on “Cold Nites,” both as it is performed live and as it is portrayed on Total Loss.
This seeming opposite in production was bisected on last year’s Just Once EP, which plucked three songs from the debut and rearranged them using classical components. Violins, cellos, and violas took on the lumbering work of distortion pedals and punctured speaker drums, allowing for melody to flow with the sound’s current as opposed to being recklessly thrown back and forth by it. This change in tact was a bold one, but it clearly carried the artist in the direction he wanted to be heading in: somewhere upstream, away from the feedback, drone, and deranged beauty, and towards porcelain composure and exquisite refinement sure to embellish his capability as a musician as well as his apparent desire for a calming production.
While adroit songwriting, vocal mastery, and the prowess to pull off effectual production achievements are apparent in different measures on both Love Remains and Total Loss, the former witnessed How To Dress Well creating an imperative friction between resplendent singing and harsh webs of digital mess that distinctively amplified the issues at hand. The subject matter on the first album is difficult to discern sonically, but through brandished track titles such as “Suicide Dream 2,” gauging their angle is by no means a feat in diagonalization. Total Loss also sees Krell tackling death, love, and remembrance through song structure, as well as in his rippling, candid melodies, which are practically void of said friction and accompany compositions that tug as much on the classical ambient aspirations of Amiina as they do on the R&B-flavored pop palette of Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope. Instrumentation pours into the vocals here like a decaf espresso melting over vanilla ice cream, blending each component together to create an easy, soothing partnership that’s pleasant, sure, but without the kick, that wonderful beckoning noise.
This new approach is graceful but weary, with mixed results throughout. However, a favorable example can be found in “Struggle,” which revisits a lyric from the opening track while fleeting synths elapse alongside sporadic handclaps. The harmony is haunted and pronounced, amplifying the ghost-choir qualities for which How To Dress Well became so renowned, only this time they exist through crisp production where vocals gently permeate as opposed to crackle and bubble under the surface. There are instances on the album when that glaring absence of friction is addressed, and they are relished with utmost gratification, despite their lacking in low fidelity: “Set It Right” begins with a fabulously deep sample that is carefully looped, while the artist’s impeccable voice shines in creating a splendid audio tableaux, only to abruptly fade in the adverse closing segment, where Krell whispers the names of people he misses, friends and family who have presumably passed on.
The peak of Total Loss is undoubtedly “Ocean Floor for Everything,” which despite the absence of vital resistance, distinctly conforms to this tepid model with dazzling affect. It remains one of the few songs that adheres to the heights of what preceded it, where influences and ideas are delineated to form captivating and beautiful music. But while Krell was able to make a penetrating statement concerning the nature of his vexed aesthetic throughout the entirety of his debut, the point is made here on only a handful of tracks. And, unfortunately, they simply do not resonate deeply enough as a body of work to constitute something as memorable, like flickering specks in the endless rain.