One of the things that new alternative acts are somtimes charged with is recasting a mainstream genre in some new light that makes it more palatable and interesting as an objet d’art. The implication is that before, the medium was insbustantial mainstream fluff, but now, through the lens of a true artist, the culturally savvy can begin to engage the tastes of the common music consumer. Even if the allegation is made with critically honest intentions and genuine egalitarian feeling for Top 40 music, which it more often than not is, there’s still a prejudice there that belies the pretension with which it will sometimes be received. For How to Dress Well, the result is reflexive. The project’s debut album, Love Remains, can’t just be judged on its own merits. It also has to be judged against the R&B that it sprang out of.
I once referred to the music that Tom Krell makes as How to Dress Well as “R&B phantasmagoria,” which is basically a shorter way of saying that Krell distills all of the bravado and pop tendencies out of R&B and comes back with a flat slate of heavy emoting. Krell makes it clear that his distortion of the genre isn’t based in irreverence. In fact, he goes even further and singles out artists whose appropriation of R&B tropes he feels is less than respectul (jj). What separates the labor of love that is How to Dress Well from R. Kelly is just vocal talent, production quality and a lack of (soap) operatics.
Love Remains engages its listener best when Krell’s influences are least present. Tracks like “Decisions” and “Suicide Dream 2” strip away all of the artifice of popular music and lean entirely on their considerable melodramatic girth. The great choice that Krell makes in instances like that is to not use the songs’ content to guide the listener to a specific emotional conclusion. He just puts the raw material out there and lets us place whatever feeling it evokes on top of it. There’s a type of listener who needs more direction from their music, and it would seem that for the most part Krell’s not too concerned with them.
How to Dress Well made its name on the ambient, moody stuff, but there’s plenty of upbeat material on this album, as well. Songs like “Endless Rain” and “Mr. By & By” are certainly pleasant enough, but they also point out the deficit between How to Dress Well and the project’s pop inspiration. How to Dress Well’s overall lack of aesthetic information, as a project and a performer, lets those songs droop, whereas an abundance of that same content from a mainstream recording artist would buoy them. “Lover’s Start” has a nice sort of hazy feel to it, but with the dearth of personal presence on the record, something about the strutting rhythm and Krell’s gauzy, psychedelic Jon B vocal pepetrates a falseness that undercuts the track — a risk shared by Love Remains‘ other uptempo material.
In an interview Krell explicitly compared How to Dress Well to pop music: “It’s a lot more about sound design than my personality. Kanye [West] is really self-advancing. That’s not what How to Dress Well is about — it’s more about delivering a feeling.” Love Remains shows that Krell is definitely adept at delivering feelings, but there’s more than a couple of tracks that could use a little more personality.