By Russell Warfield
If you sneered at How To Dress Well’s debut LP Love Remains for ‘relying’ on cheap bedroom recording gimmicks, or the facade of lo-fi aesthetic to create a falsely affecting aura, then let me begin this review by pointing you in the direction of the criminally under-heard Just Once EP, which reconfigured some of the album material into beautiful orchestral arrangements. The argument collapses: the songs were always there. The hissing and lo-fidelity weren’t compensating for any lack of substance to the material; Krell wasn’t relying on his production techniques, but simply employing them, adding deeper atmospherics to what were already stunningly emotional songs. (In live performance, ‘Suicide Dream 2′ heard once is never forgotten). Now touring with the delicate backing of keys and strings rather than simply a backing track, Krell is armed to forever transcend any of these unsubstantiated accusations, and the songs which make up the divine Total Loss undoubtedly do so magnificently.
Far from (what could be claimed to be) the scrappy, thrown-together jumble of recorded ideas which made up Love Remains, Total Loss sees Krell take a grand leap forward into creating a record which has clearly been nurtured as a whole, moving from beginning to end with a majestic sense of pacing, and rising and falling tension. While touching base on a range of sounds – as he always has – Krell weaves everything into a gloriously unfurling silk of ultimately unified ideas.
The opening phrases of the scant opening track, to take one example, return to haunt the more devastatingly fraught build-up of ‘Struggle’ as it moves into its howling falsetto and whip-crack snares, re-contextualising the same melody among two competing dramas. But nor is it a closed system: Krell having the nerve (or indeed, the sense) to bring in a glancing cover of Ashanti’s ‘Foolish’ into ‘Running Back’, for instance, and continuing to collect a broad range of influences under his unique and idiosyncratic umbrella of ethereal R&B, where there’s apparently room for everyone regardless of what’s ‘cool’ or what ‘should work’. Be assured, his voice can smooth over the cracks.
Let’s return to the popular bug-bear of that first record for a moment and ask it straight, as I suspect there are still some non-believers out there: can Krell really offer up material which stands tall without the mask of lo-fi gimmickry? I can hardly stress enough: yes he can, and not only is the material all the stronger for it, but it’s equally difficult to overstate how perfectly rendered the cleaned up and icy clear production on Total Loss truly is. Album highlight ‘Cold Nites’ perfectly exemplifies the strides Krell has taken in terms of both song writing and execution – the haunting, falling keys, despite their fragility, ringing unduly loudly as they resonate through the mix’s expansive sense of space, and when Krell’s falsetto sighs into its coda, any remaining conversions should be fully complete.
But this isn’t to say that Krell has gone misguidedly ‘epic’ in his efforts to clean up and evolve his sound. The really thrilling part of the trick is how Krell retains the DIY modesty of his prior recordings, but projects them through the stained glass window of shimmering hi-fidelity. Take other album highlight ‘& It Was You’, which sees Krell go more unashamedly for the straight up R&B than he’s ever dared before, and to tremendous results. But he doesn’t have the crudity to do it through whip cracking Timbaland beats or overwrought band-in-a-box production. Instead, the absolute monster jam is born of little more than (take this first one as a given) his voice, finger snaps, and a whomping, metronomic fuzz which thumps into life after the first chorus (after, such his delight in throwaway flourishes, a quickly competing bar or two of tinny drum machine). And it’s the slinkiest groove you’ll hear all year. The attention to detail among the rhythms and the layers and layers of falsetto is staggering, and while Krell is as eager as ever to use modestly rugged sounds, the overall arrangements have the space and clarity to proudly display all of their glistening components.
Crispness and clarity is as much of a friend to Krell as were layers of lo-fi intrigue. The tightly coiled misery of his sort-of duet ‘Talking To You’ exploding into the cathartic release of the roaring ‘Set It Right’ both draw a great deal of power from the sharpness of the recordings, serving their respective delicacy and density equally well. And, so let me end the review by pointing you in the direction of that Just Once once again, because here is the key to the whole puzzle, revealing the stars of the show without debate: Krell’s voice, and Krell’s song writing. It’s tempting to say that they could deliver anything, and so with these towering twin abilities at the core of How To Dress Well, it’s of no wonder that Krell’s third and fourth vocations of aural magpie and intuitively pitch-perfect producer see Total Loss transcending evaluation as a collection of curiosities to being hailed as near masterpiece.