How To Dress Well is the stage name of songwriter and producer Tom Krell. He first emerged in 2009 with a stream of EPs collecting a set of home recordings that resembled ethereal R&B slow jams produced on a budget of ten pence and mastered with the aid of a cement mixer – but in a (mostly) good way.
2010’s debut full-length, Love Remains, collected some of the tracks on those EPs and added a few new songs. It was received rapturously by the indie press, resulting in a groundswell of anticipation ahead of the release of Love Remains’ follow-up, Total Loss.
Krell’s timing is felicitous. Indie R&B – as practised by the likes of The xx, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Drake and Purity Ring – is the tastemakers’ genre du jour. The music of How To Dress Well – sensual, snail-paced and powered throughout by Krell’s tortured falsetto – slots in neatly alongside these other acts. Yet it’s clear from listening to Total Loss that Krell isn’t chasing commercial success. This is a subtle, at times difficult record that takes multiple listens to reveal its depths.
It’s a pretty sad affair, for a start. Tom Krell has had a tough couple of years: he lost both his best friend and his uncle unexpectedly and a long-distance relationship crumbled. This is manifested in Total Loss, from the title and – most startlingly – in the extraordinary Set It Right, in which the lurching, electro-gospel drone cuts out to allow Krell to deliver a litany of names of those lost, either literally or figuratively; “Jamie, I miss ya; mama, I miss ya; and dad, I miss ya…”
Fortunately, Total Loss is an album that’s emotionally-wrought rather than depressing and whiny. Krell continues to specialise in slow tempos, but the production (co-handled by The xx’s producer Rodaidh McDonald) is a considerable step up from Love Remains’ scuzziness. The audio fidelity is clear, crisp and even – when the strings on World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You and Talking To You kick in – luxurious-sounding.
Indeed, such is the surface-layer prettiness of Total Loss, on the first listen it’s easy to get caught up in the sound and ignore the songs. Fortunately, they’re worth paying close attention to. Running Back is particularly masterful and perhaps the best example of Krell’s approach so far: a sexy little number that sounds like a minimalist tracing of a lost Jodeci track.
Such is Total Loss’s unity of sound, it’s hard to choose a true standout: something that’s likely to ensare passers-by and direct people to the album. & It Was U might be the closest contender. It’s certainly the nearest Total Loss gets to a rave-up, as Krell gives into his diva tendencies over a gradually-building, subtly banging track. It’s ripe for a massive, floor-filling remix.
In a recent interview Krell spoke dismissively of indie R&B that’s “ready to be played in Urban Outfitters”. Krell needn’t worry about Total Loss meeting the same fate. It’s extremely unlikely that deeply odd tracks such as Say My Name Or Say Whatever – built around a repetitive, John Cage-style piano motif and a weird, mewling vocal from Krell – will ever soundtrack the perusal of overpriced cardigans.
Like its predecessor, Total Loss can be hard to take in during a single sitting. But while Love Remains proved a hard listen because of its liberal use of distorted effects, Total Loss is tough going because of the emotional intensity of its content.
This is no bad thing. It’s rare for an ostensibly ‘indie’ release to be so emotionally straight-faced and soulful. Let’s hope the next couple of years prove rather less tumultuous for the guy: not only for the sake of his happiness, but also because it would be extremely interesting to hear Krell’s considerable skills applied to more upbeat music and words. For now though, Total Loss will do nicely.