Friday, September 30, 2016

album review: 'care' by how to dress well

Let's briefly flashback to 2014. It's near the beginning of the summer, I'm listening through the new How To Dress Well album, the PBR&B project from singer-songwriter Tom Krell, and even despite hitting the absolutely gorgeous song 'Pour Cyril' that would later land on my list of my favourite songs of the year - we hit a bit of a snag. Even as that record is aspiring to more of a pop sound compared to the heavy melancholy of Total Loss from 2012, I wasn't certain he was pulling it off. His vocals were too thin and gentle, the self-absorbed bluntness not really fitting with the tones he was chasing, it was the sort of record that had all the ingredients of an insightful and potent pop record... that just ended up missing the mark for me.

So when I heard that Krell was taking How To Dress Well even further in a pop direction, recruiting Jack Antonoff of fun. and Bleachers and dancehall producer Dre Skull, I have to admit I was a little skeptical. On the one hand, sure, Jack Antonoff has a great ear for pop hooks and he's been the secret weapon behind some great songs before... but on the other hand the move to touch on dancehall struck me as yet another artist hopping towards tropical sounds in a bid for the mainstream, a lane that struck me as the completely wrong fit for Tom Krell. His writing might occasionally ring as simple and straightforward in a pop context, but his presentation demanded subtlety, and modern pop is nearly the furthest thing from that. And given the lukewarm response to this record, I was tentative to dig in, but Krell does have a gift for some powerful melodies, so I figured Care was worth a listen - was I right?

Well, it was worth a listen, if only because Tom Krell's approach to pop music on Care really is fascinating, even if I'd argue it doesn't totally work. But man, I really wish it did, because I can really get behind the core of the idea on this record and even a fair amount of the execution... but not enough to elevate the album to greatness beyond fragments. And what's kind of fascinating is that you can tell the raw talent is there to pull this sort of gorgeous, emotionally insightful pop record, almost across the board - it just doesn't quite stick the landing as a whole, which is probably why more critics than usual have come down harder on this record compared to Krell's work in the past.

But I do want to highlight where this record does indeed go right, and the best place to start is the instrumentation and production. Make no mistake, Krell has always been a potent melodic composer, and even if he was getting filtered through more mainstream production I knew at a fundamental level the tunes would be here. And though Krell often does play fast and loose with the choruses, there are some potent moments with real melodic swell and sparkle. It helps that Care starts pretty strong: even though I think the drums feel a tad too heavy the piano against the bass groove on 'Can't You Tell' is great, especially with the strings and multitracking. And sure, on 'What's Up' the topical percussion did feel a tad odd - along with the pseudo-rap delivery from Krell on the verses - but the similar formula and vibe did flow really well, and I also really dug the horns and guitar growth to support the hook on 'Made A Lifetime'. Although - let's get real here - the best hook on this record by a mile is the album standout 'Salt Song', with that whistle and blurry guitar on the post-chorus. Sure, the song does run a tad long, but it's one of the few cases where the song's explosion of drums and guitar in the final minute really pushed it over the top in the best way. But what stands out about these songs is a fundamental melody anchoring the hooks in either the piano or the strings... and unfortunately, across a large swathe of the rest of the album Krell doesn't really go in that direction. Instead, like so much of modern pop we have overdubbed and layered vocal tracks against thicker percussion, with the grooves not always anchored as strongly - which can be a real problem for momentum when the songs start to drag or find themselves getting drowned in their own blurry textures, like the cavernous mix and shrill keys on 'The Ruins', or the waves of bass that swamps out 'Time Was Meant To Stay', or the shrill outro on the otherwise pretty decent 'I Was Terrible'.

But overall, there is a heft and swell to a lot of the production I really appreciate, and Krell's heartfelt sincerity is a natural fit for production that might be a little rougher than, say, Vienna Teng, but never completely swallows itself in reverb. I would say this... but here's where we run into the issue of Krell himself. Suffice to say, despite tonal similarities he is not The Weeknd, or at least is not produced like The Weeknd to hold command over the mix in the same way, and his very willowy tone just doesn't have the presence to match the heavier beats and drums or the roaring, synth-touched guitars. Even with multitracking, he often feels nestled into the mix, so fragile against the much thicker instrumentation you'd expect from modern pop - and here's the thing, it's not so much bad as much as I'm aware that if Usher or even co-producer Jack Antonoff was the main singer, I'd probably get swept up in them a lot more.

Granted, I doubt they'd be singing or writing songs quite like these, so let's dig into the content - and let me stress again that I like the idea of what Tom Krell is doing. In comparison with so much of modern pop music, which can feel dour and drab and relentlessly nihilistic, his is a plea for optimism and caring in an increasingly uncaring world, to show affection and compassion. And hell, I'm entirely on board with this sentiment - the problem is how it plays out. Let's be blunt here, one of the greatest strengths of Tom Krell's writing on early How To Dress Well records was that his straightforward writing was given nuance by subtler instrumentation and his sensitive delivery - form matched function. But when you inflate to a pop scope and the writing doesn't pick up nuance... well, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand you can get away with a broad scope, but the focus of the content should come close to matching it, and that's where Care kind of flies off the rails both in the language and content. His writing has always been blunt but when you have songs 'Lost Youth/Lost You' which shows the breakup in real time with him unable to communicate except in an attempt to apologize saying he's 'garbage', it feels melodramatic that kind of fits the instrumentation but not his delivery. Or take the open apology of 'I Was Terrible' - the framing is honest and I can buy into his urgency, but nowhere in actual song does he say the words 'I'm sorry', and it's here where you notice the self-flagellation is taking more of a front seat than the actual person for whom Krell is singing.

And once you notice that this album is much more focused on Krell trying to reconcile the idea of 'caring' in the modern world instead of the relationships around him... well, if anything it's even more of a mixed blessing. 'Salt Song' might have some cringe worthy lines like 'I Want To Learn To Care For My Soul', but as the track progresses he sees how easy and liberating it can be to feel happy, even if that honesty and openness can be a risk in the modern world. And this is where track sequencing becomes a real issue, because right after the bright optimism early on we get hit with lines like on 'The Ruins' 'What is truly caring? It's a blurry line / All the people staring is what I always had in mind' - in other words to quote Wicked, 'Was I really seeking good, or just seeking attention'. Fine concept, but the framing doesn't use this snapshot of self-awareness to inform later songs like 'Anxious', where he has nightmares about his Twitter mentions and oversharing online and wants to fade back into anonymity like everyone else, or on 'They'll Take Everything You Have', which plays very much to how self-serving society is, constantly taking all that he's giving. And the fact that this is the root of the drama bothers me on some level - the fact that altruism is such a struggle for Krell feels self-serving the way it's presented, which would be less of an issue if that invward focus wasn't a running theme in his last three albums. Even at the end of the album on 'Untitled', where he's trying to write a song to help a child learn to live with sadness and still be able to give, the narrative shifts not to giving to another but just a message to himself, and that he shouldn't give up. Fine enough ending, I guess, if the focus was more intimate - which it isn't - but considering how often he brings up world-breaking calamities throughout the record, it can feel a little narcissistic and almost adolescent in context. know, there's a Texas country artist named Cody Jinks who released a fantastic record earlier this year that I reviewed called I'm Not The Devil, and on that record was a song called 'Give All You Can'. And the message of the song really stuck with me: acknowledging those who give of themselves in your life, the angels that might help in ways you barely even remember, and thus whenever you have a chance to be that angel for someone else, give all you can and expect nothing in return - which, come to think of it, is what love is, in not too many words. And I love that song because there isn't that moral paralysis that afflicts Care by How To Dress Well - hell, it's one of the reasons the best songs on this album for me are when Tom Krell gives of himself, like the positive consent of 'Can't You Tell' or even just the little promise of 'Made A Lifetime'. Maybe it's just poor sequencing that this record doesn't come to that emotional maturity sooner, but even with that the internal focus just doesn't sit well with this material, and when you pair it with very earnest delivery and yet too thin for the bombast behind it, it leads to a record with good intentions but one that swallows its tail and sacrificing its power. So for me it's a strong 6/10 and a modest recommendation - it's a record that could have been great, but is still pretty decent and worth a listen, if only for 'Salt Song' and 'Made A Lifetime'. Either way, Krell seems to have found his courage to give - and as much as I appreciate the ideas here, I'm definitely curious to see what he gives us next.

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