Bedroom recordings have taken huge strides in the past few years. With the advent of better technology and the ability to purchase sampling and mixing programs for cheaper than ever before, more and more people are making music their own way on their own dime. If it’s good enough and the person or band does the right sort of promotion, the music will be heard and popularity will move up or down accordingly. One of the bigger indie successes in recent memory has to me that of tUnE-YarDs, the one woman project of Merrill Garbus. She recorded her entire debut album “Bird-Brains” only using the microphone built into her laptop, and it pretty much sounds like it. Still, poor audio quality or not, plenty of people fell in love with the songs on that album and she’s also managed to establish a bigger fan base thanks to what many call a jaw-droppingly great live show. So if the DIY star of 2009 was Garbus, there’s little doubt the 2010 one is Tom Krell, a philosophy student that records under the moniker How to Dress Well. Last fall, How to Dress Well surfaced via a blog where Krell began posting a series of EPs for free download. Thanks to that easy availability, a number of keen ears caught wind of HTDW and the press cycle began. Now a year later, How to Dress Well has only picked up more steam as his debut album “Love Remains” has finally arrived in stores thanks to Lefse Records.
For those that caught onto How to Dress Well back in the “early” days of 2009, a number of songs on “Love Remains” should be immediately familiar to you. Much of the debut album is composed of tracks that appeared on the several EPs released months back. Many of the versions that are on this record have been touched up, but never to the point where they sound in any way professional. The new songs also carry that same aesthetic, and in some of the louder moments you get the fuzz that comes with taking your recording “into the red” aka beyond the capabilities of a microphone not connected to a carefully calibrated soundboard. So what makes up the core sound of How to Dress Well? When reading most anything about the man, you’ll catch references to “strong R&B influences”. If you have listened to a lot of R&B, most specifically from the 90s, you can definitely hear pieces of it on “Love Remains”. Where How to Dress Well differs is primarily in the use of general electronic textures and overdubs to create music that’s less rhythmically inclined and more adrift in the ether. Songs flow in an almost organic way, and when it comes to beats, the unconfirmed mixture of computers and handclaps stays static no matter how fast or slow everything else might be going. It creates a few moments of what feels like imbalance, but the reality is actually a bit brilliant, throwing you just off the mark enough to take notice but never enough to ruin what’s already going. The vocals are another highly fascinating aspect of How to Dress Well. Either due to the poor recording quality or through pure manipulation, you’ll barely be able to make out a word of what’s being said at any given point in the record. Without a doubt the words are there, but they’re sung like a person who recognizes a melody from a long time ago but can’t seem to remember exactly how the lyrics go. Suddenly the spotlight and a microphone is in front of you and the crowd wants to hear you belt it out…but you can’t, so you do the next best thing which is mumble to the point where it SOUNDS like the words are right but nobody can make them out clearly. Yeah, the muffled lyrics don’t help should you want to sing along, but if you’re so inclined, feel free to hum along to the melody of a track like “Ready for the World”.
While R&B may be a standard frame of reference for How to Dress Well, should you not normally listen to or enjoy that sort of music, no worries. In indie terms, think of “Love Remains” like a less percussive, early stage Animal Collective record with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on lead vocals. Krell does sound an awful lot like Vernon, and the overdubbed and often harmonized backing vocals only add further creedence to that. Actually a great model on the whole for HTDW would be the group Gayngs, of which Vernon is a member. They’ve got a slow, soft rock sort of vibe with a hint of that same R&B flavor – the difference in the end being the high level of production and wide variety of instruments used. For a home-recorded, very limited range record, “Love Remains” does an incredible amount of things with an incredibly small number of tools. Krell’s ability to manipulate just a couple of sparse sounds on a song like “Endless Rain” into something that feels fully formed is fascinating to hear and really establishes him as a talent. That he can also pull off such a serene mess of a masterpiece without using much in the way of lyrics is even more impressive. At any moment it feels like the songs could just dissolve into nothingness or simply ambient noise, but none ever do and that’s a big part of what makes “Love Remains” such a gripping listen. It goes without saying that you should pick up a copy of this record. It’s one of the year’s finest, and might just inspire a whole new collection of musicians crafting smart music using just a handful of instruments in their bedrooms. Chances are very few will find the sort of success that How to Dress Well has, but if the next Tom Krell is out there somewhere tinkering around, we’d all be idiots to not give him or her some positive attention.