Monday, June 30, 2014

album review: "what is this heart?" by how to dress well

Well, this conversation was inevitable, but it's also one that I've been meaning to discuss for some time. And it's not a comfortable subject either, but it needs to be addressed in some fashion after some critics decided to make it a point when criticizing the album in the classic example of criticizing the artist, not the art.

Yeah, I'm talking about indie R&B, or PBR&B if you want to get snarky about it, a term coined in the rise of a selection of unconventional R&B acts over the past couple of years. A relatively new subgenre, indie R&B drew more on more diverse aesthetics and subject matter than the classic jazz/soul/gospel influences that have driven R&B for decades now. Common acts in this genre include Frank Ocean, Miguel and The Weeknd, who built successful careers modernizing R&B tropes and subject matter. And amongst that group was the musical project of singer-songwriter of Tom Krell called How To Dress Well, who, in contrast to many of the conventions of R&B, traditional or indie, is white.

Okay, let's state this right out of the gate: yes, white musicians have borrowed from black music for decades, and some built careers on assuming the general public would be ignorant enough not to look up the original source. And they tended to get away with it... until the Internet came along and made the dissemination of information and music a lot easier and gave artists of all races the equality of opportunity to enter the medium. And as a music critic, I work my hardest to focus on the art, not the artist, unless said artist's life provides additional context or meaning to the music. And I'm going to repeat what I said about cultural appropriation back when I reviewed that last tUnE-yArDs album Nikki Nack: if you're going to borrow from other cultures, know what the hell you're doing and do it well - and in the case of indie R&B, it's being shaped by a richer well of influences than solely music that has been traditionally associated with black culture, so this shouldn't be an issue! 

And yet whenever How To Dress Well gets brought up in some circles, the cultural appropriation conversation gets dragged up - which is a goddamn shame, because his 2012 album Total Loss was pretty damn great and deserves to be considered on its own merits featuring a strong fusion of modern R&B with the hazier, melancholic edges of indie rock, showing beautiful compositions at the intersection between gorgeous melodies and distorted, experimental rawness. And sure, you could make the parallels between his delivery and other R&B acts, but I'd argue the confessional emotions he brings to the table are universal regardless of race - and on that record, he shows them pretty damn well. So you can bet I wanted to check his new album "What Is This Heart?" - how does it go?

Well, this is interesting, and a little frustrating - because "What Is This Heart?" by How To Dress Well is the sort of album that is far from easy to analyze completely outside of cultural appropriation arguments: a beautifully composed, excellently produced, intelligently written indie R&B album with aspirations towards pop and Justin Timberlake in particular... and yet one I'm not quite convinced works all the way through. And bizarrely, even though Krell has gone on record saying he wants to be 'pop, not populist' and has the intellectual heft to back up his lyrics with real nuance, I have the odd feeling a streak of populism might have helped this album work a little better than it does.

Okay, before this gets too complicated, let's talk about the instrumentation and production - and for the most part, it's gorgeous. Krell has had a real gift for melodic composition for a long time, and though you can spot the influences from R&B acts of the 80s and 90s, the melodies are decidedly his own and presented in that manner. Understated tinkling pianos, murky bass to supplement gurgling pitch-shifted vocals, ragged strings arrangements that have some phenomenal texture and yet still blend wonderfully against the well-plucked guitar work, the shimmering synth lines that drift across the tracks, and the sandy, crisp percussion coming together to create beautifully smooth, yet impressively fragile compositions. I really liked Rodaidh McDonald's production on Total Loss, and he shows a lot of range on the much more varied instrumental palette we get on this record. And there are plenty of individual moments that really stand out in a beautiful way: the ominous thrum of the bass on 'What You Wanted', the strings on the opening and the subtle punctuation of deeper vocals on 'See You Fall', the funkier guitars and thick clap percussion on 'Repeat Pleasure', the gorgeous strings arrangement on 'Pour Cyril', the fusion of ghostly synths and electric guitars on 'Precious Love', the distant electric guitar and fluttering pianos on 'Childhood Faith In Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay The Same)' that almost seems like a Jimmy Eat World deep cut, and the textured percussion bouncing against the piano and guitars on 'A Power', these moments are just fantastic and worth listening to all on their own. That said, there are a few elements of the instrumentation of which I wasn't really a fan, most notably the pitch-shifted vocals and some of the darker, more ominous, unsteady synth tones, mostly because they seemed like elements trying to add a harsher atmosphere that really clashed with Krell's vocals.

And on that note, let's talk about Krell himself. Honestly, in the vein of indie R&B, he's not the most striking performer who has ever come up to the microphone, but his range is impressive and he's convincing at delivering a lot of emotion, especially when comes across as conflicted or heartbroken. Where he stumbles a bit is when singing about emotions that demand more energy, like anger or joy - mostly because he doesn't have a huge amount of stage presence and his vocals can come across as really thin in this range. And while I won't deny that the vocal production does do a fine job emphasizing his loneliness and despair, it's a bit of an odd fit when considering some of the broader subject matter of this record.

And here's where we get into complicated territory, and this is talking about lyrics and themes. Much of Krell's work has focused on an underlying pessimism in his relationships - he sees depression, death, and despair everywhere, even in love, and what's all the more striking is that it's completely divorced from ironic disaffection. No, there's a lot of aching sincerity behind Krell's music that can make it powerfully emotional with a purity that all good pop music strives to attain. And this definitely carries over into his lyrics, because Krell makes sure to frame his songs as painfully self-aware of his own flaws and failings when it comes to these troubled or collapsing relationships. It brings to light a very human perspective on these situations which I can definitely respect lyrically.

But here's the problem: when you put the elements of the songs together, the overall tone of the compositions doesn't always hold together. Putting aside the fact that Krell isn't exactly convincing in modes that require a degree of more visceral darkness, we get songs like 'See You Fall', a song where that really has dark connotations of forcibly exposing his partner's vulnerability and his acknowledgement that he's not so good not to take this step - and yet it's paired with very gentle instrumental framing that feels very awkward. Or take 'Repeat Pleasure', one of the most upbeat songs on the record that seems to emphasize Krell's continued hunger for pleasure beyond stability - but Krell is completely unconvincing trying to pull off this pseudo-Prince sex jam. Now thematically, this record is exploring how Krell deals with love, and on some level, it posits that by filtering it through his brand of indie pop R&B, that it's more of a blessing than a curse: something he always wants, but once he has it, his actions and attitudes only seem to push it further away or trigger its collapse in favour of another. And yet Krell is such an expressive, vulnerable presence behind the microphone that while these sorts of attitudes might fit the self-flagellating side of his delivery, without a certain amount of detachment, I find these songs hard to buy. And since we get very little details surrounding the other people in these situations, and while Krell might be emotionally honest about his plight so it doesn't come across as calculated, the songs present a protagonist's self-absorption who is aware of how his appetites might appear, and yet he acts on them regardless - and we're supposed to admire or empathize with him here? Krell himself has drawn comparisons to Mark Kozelek's singer-songwriter project Sun Kil Moon, and I have similar issues with "What Is This Heart?" as I did with Benji, because both albums present songwriters who are extremely intelligent and are yet obsessed with their own stories, and yet are critical darlings because on the surface, they've afforded themselves some nuance in the lyrical framing. And sure, you can have artists frame themselves in this way if they're looking to make a point behind it - but like with Benji, I find the revelations delivered on "What Is This Heart?" to be somewhat trite, and they don't really grip me as profound, especially when they can be partially summed up by one line from Adam Driver's character from Season 2 of Girls: "Well, if you love someone, you don't have to be nice to them all the time."

Now to be fair, the stakes are different here - How To Dress Well is working the vein of R&B and pop, and strangely enough, the songs where he opts for a more straightforward approach to his doomed desire for love often work a little better. And there's a certain strange symmetry to the fleeting nature of pop music and the fleeting nature of the relationships goes through, and the nuance is mostly there to support it - but if I'm being honest, I can't help but feel these songs might have more impact if not delivered by Krell. Simply put, he comes across as almost too gentle to back up his lyrical themes, and it makes his ending tracks ring a little hollow to me. Sure, they're honest - for now. Sure, 'love is a pretty, pretty thing', always something to be sought - until you throw it all away in search of something or someone better. It rings as callous to me, and Krell's edge-less delivery doesn't have the nuance to back it up. Give it to The Weeknd or Justin Timberlake - or hell, even give it to Drake who has a reputation for this sort of plain-faced honesty in an R&B vein - artists who can show sensitivity and then have that harsher edge or emotionally detach from the situation in their delivery, and I might be able to find it a little more tolerable.

Look, in the end, "What Is This Heart?" by How To Dress Well is far from bad. The compositions are gorgeous, the production is stellar, the songwriting has real nuance - but I can't help but feel that Krell is somewhat missing his mark with this record, which means I'm giving it a 7/10, because really, I wanted to like this album a fair bit more than I do. There's drama here, to be sure, but it's not really a type of drama that suits him well, especially given its presentation. Tom Krell has said in interviews that he might a folk singer - and honestly, for a singer-songwriter with a fair bit of intellect to bring to the table and who can deliver that nuance, it might be a better fit for him than modern indie R&B. And at least that way the asinine cultural appropriation accusations will finally be put put to bed - and good riddance.

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