How to Dress Well: What Is This Heart? Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are three reactions, three impressions, three takes on What is This Heart? by How To Dress Well.
Jon Jon, @SoundVerite1
Following 2012’s impressive Total Loss, Tom Krell who records as How To Dress Well seemed poised to make breakthrough. On his latest effort What Is This Heart?, he’s much more polished, often lacking any edge. Another young male vocalist who praises R&B bangers, yet acknowledges he may or may not have what it takes to actually make one, but tries anyway. Can’t be mad at trying.
My first impressions of HTDW, is he is a cool vocalist with good production choices draped in emotional distress. Even though Total Loss opened HTDW up to fans of more adventurist James Blake , SOHN and other younger singers inspired to some degree by R&B of the early 2000’s. How To Dress Well comes across as more aspiring to Justin Timberlake than James Blake. He goes for the big production which ultimately comes across as oversized for his reach. All the discussion of his intensity and emotional sincerity feels void of any actual emotion. There’s a few songs that get a good look , “What You Wanted” and the “Words I Don’t Remember” are the stronger tracks here. Particularly nice is the keeper “Words I Don’t Remember”, which reaches for and achieves as a mysterious daydreaming ballad of loss. Would’ve been nice to hear beat-makers like Shlohmo or Madlib with production assistance, and perhaps a guest female vocal would break the monotony. Ultimately What Is This Heart?, hints at an artist still searching for his sound, a record that had expectations to be a contender, yet feels like a bland run through of modern white soul. There’s always the remixes.
I probably should have just recused myself from reviewing the new How to Dress Well album because if “getting” it were Kansas then you could consider me on one of Saturn’s outer rings. This guy basically sounds to me like the Kenny G of vocal music – I mean he’s got a decent enough voice but these tunes are about as edgy as a stick of warm butter. It would make pretty good hold music. Oh wait, it actually is hold music! Tom Krell sampled Cisco’s infamous Tim Carleton-orchestrated conference call hold music for the tune “Precious Love.” Having been subjected to that hold music for countless grueling hours over the course of one particularly bad job, it now evokes something of a horrific Pavlovian response. Still, even discounting my own personal demons, I still just don’t think I would be that into this album. The one track I don’t mind is “Pour Cyril” but I will leave everything else to others who are appreciative of this sort of thing. I am not saying that they are wrong, but I still don’t understand what they are getting out of this horrible, horrible music.
Following up such a well regarded and tumultuous album such as Total Loss, Tom Krell has his work cut out for him. With What Is This Heart, he chooses to take a route less traveled, and while maintaining the grief-stricken tone he had on Total Loss, craft an album that has a lot more instrumentally textured and well-defined balance for such emotional resonance to come through with awe-inspiring clarity. Take for example the rich and lushy aquatic-filtered keys on “Words I Don’t Remember,” or the bright acoustic guitar strums on “Repeat Pleasure,” the lead off single from the album. It’s very much a record well rested in mid-90s R&B tropes that any listener will be familiar with, and once the chorus shines through, it makes the payoff well worth it. There’s still also the uncomfortable and cacophonous “Face Again,” with 808s pulsating like a heartbeat, and bass reverberating throughout the entirety of the track, allowing Krell’s vocals to burst through with great ease amongst the twittering hi-hats in the chorus. It’s really hard to hate on anything presented on What Is This Heart, however, with the topics presented on this release, Krell relies on that emotional resonance and heavy topics to carry the brunt of the weight, and the results are just as amazing and astounding this go round, making What Is This Heart another notch in the belt of an already amazing discography.