Monday, 23 June 2014

How To Dress Well - "What Is This Heart?" Review

As 2014 progresses, the marriage between the 'indie community' and R&B seems increasingly prominent; beloved acts such as Warpaint and Sharon Van Etten are experimenting with R&B sounds on their respective recent releases whilst 'indie icons' like Grimes and Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino have been proclaiming their love for R&B stars like Drake. Though this all may seem quite sudden, 'Indie R&B' has actually been in existence for quite some time now. Tom Krell is somewhat a pioneer of this sub-genre, creating intriguing and textured down-beat R&B under the moniker How To Dress Well since 2009 with a series of free EPs. It was his critically acclaimed 2010 debut Love Remains which first turned by attention to Krell's sound; a strikingly assured debut, Love Remains offered soulful R&B jams under a blanket of  haze. Follow-up Total Loss was an equally down-beat affair, though Krell's strengthened sense of melody in his songwriting made it far more accessible than it's predecessor.

Lyrically, "What Is This Heart?"  is very much in the same vein as Krell's previous two LPs. Though with themes such as love, pride and trust being addressed in an equal measure to loss, anxiety, fear and shame, "What Is This Heart?" certainly feels more uplifting than anything he has ever done before. Without even listening to the record, the imagery immediately provides you with contextual ideas which coincidentally tie in rather well with the music itself. The cover is a stoic portrait of Krell gazing into the distance with a sense of anguish, longing and (possibly) inner-turmoil in his expression. In the elaborate deluxe packaging there is a stone-carved image for every song on the record, each evoking a tone and aesthetic similar to that of an Ancient Greek or Roman mural. This is reiterated by the record itself, with lyrics reading like a Greek tragedy at times and the production grand and cinematic (see 'Pour Cyril').

Following the stripped-back opening track '2 Years Back (Same Dream)', the tone shifts into much darker territory with the commanding beats and echoing vocal samples of the menacing 'What You Wanted'. Krell continues to explore the darker side of his sound on the trip-hop infused 'Face Again' (the video of which  features Krell as a God-like figure, reiterating the album's aesthetic once more), with the heavy manipulation of his vocals and thumping beats in the chorus, this is certainly one of his more intense tracks. However, not all tracks are as enthralling as these, the track 'See You Fall' unfortunately lacks the melodic flair that is otherwise consistent on this LP, causing it to fall rather flat, though due to it's length it fails to spoil the flow of the record.

What is clear is that Krell is at his best when he embraces a poppier approach to his melodies, the lead single and standout-track 'Repeat Pleasure' being a prime example of this. Here he showcases his breathy falsetto over an infectious soul-pop backing, making the triumphant lyric 'Pleasure repeats on and on: even broken my heart will go on', even more poignant. More so on any other record of his; on"What Is This Heart?" we see Krell embrace his influences, even recalling Prince and early Michael Jackson on the excellent 'Precious Love'. A more contemporary comparison can be made on fellow highlight 'Very Best Friend', which could easily be a chart-topping Drake hit with its glitchy hip-hop beats and slick delivery. Meanwhile, the astonishing 'A Power' sees Krell more audacious than ever with cinematic piano chords and thumping percussion assisting his ever-excellent vocal delivery.

There has always been something unique about How To Dress Well's sound, encompassing the past, present and the future through Krell's eclectic palette of sounds and both visual and sonic influences. On "What Is This Heart?", the ancient Greek and Roman imagery creates an interesting juxtaposition with the colorful R&B beats and abstract melodies,  particularly on the entrancing slow jam 'Words I Don't Remember'. This along with Krell's attention to detail equates to an album which is dynamic as well as cohesive, to the extent where not listening to all tracks in order just feels plain wrong. The subtlety found in Krell's former releases has vanished, making  "What Is This Heart?" his most dynamic and confident work to date.


Best Tracks: What You Wanted, Face Again, Repeat Pleasure, Words I Don't Remember, Precious Love, A Power, Very Best Friend

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