Archive | July, 2014

How to Dress Well ‘What Is This Heart?’ – Review

10 Jul

The first time I saw the cover of ‘What Is This Heart’, How To Dress Well’s third album, I thought maybe it was a parody of po-faced singer songwriter album sleeves. Or perhaps it was ironic; something simple to contrast with the obscure and difficult music contained within. Maybe it was a play on Tom Krell’s reputation as somebody who hides in the shadows. There were many possibilities, but at no point did I consider that this stark, up-front portrait was a symbolic representation of the music; it wasn’t at all likely that the songs would be as honest, direct and personal as the image. But they are. From an artist who used to refuse interviews and perform behind a curtain it’s an astonishing about turn, but his point seems to be that being brutally open can cause as much intrigue as being hidden.

But there’s more going on here; after years of mystery and misdirection, you shouldn’t expect everything to be exactly as it seems. The more you look at the picture, the more you see the sadness in Krell’s eyes and the weariness in his expression. If you look beyond the surface and really examine the face, you’ll see just how weird and ultimately tragic it actually is. Not just Krell’s face, but any face. Take the nose for example. Stop, take yourself out of your shoes and just think about the nose for a bit. What does it look like? It’s a bizarre facial feature if you consider it from an alien perspective. And frown lines – what do they represent? And how about the bags under our eyes or the flecks of grey in a beard? This is how to think about the songs as well; not just as the simple, everyday pop songs they initially appear to be, but as examples of how downright weird some simple, everyday pop songs are capable of being. Krell forces you to reconsider pop norms, and he does this by being as candid as possible.

Unlike the songs on ‘Love Remains’ and ‘Total Loss’, these aren’t so much deconstructions of pop songs as actual pop songs. I found Krell’s older work too calculated and manipulated to really enjoy, and when I recently read about his attempts to inject humour in to his live shows I got the impression that even this was a calculated ploy, not something natural and spontaneous but a pre-determined move to lighten the mood. This was how How to Dress Well rolled; Krell’s intellectual curiosity won out. ‘Love Remains’ and ‘Total Loss’, whilst being great albums in certain ways, ultimately felt too much like theses. ‘What is this Heart?’ is a completely different proposition. Instead of being a vehicle for Tom’s intellectual ideas, the album feels like a release from them. It’s as if his brain has exploded and these songs are the glorious offshoots. This is an album that starts a conversation and then lets you do the thinking, whereas his past albums did all the thinking for you.

Krell is theatrical, enthusiastic, and passionate in his embrace of pop music tropes. His melodies sound joyous and spontaneous, moving freely without restriction or confinement. The sonic details are sparkling and on point. The arrangements are minimal but enjoyable. It’s an album of real self-exposure that verges on embarrassment (singing ‘my heart will go on’ in a piercing falsetto is the riskiest move an indie dude will pull off this year). I’m reminded that ‘What Is This Heart’ and albums of its ilk are only possible in the first place because of How To Dress Well’s’ innovative and trend-making debut, ‘Love Remains’, an album that has been said, rightly or wrongly, to have kickstarted the recent wave of indie r&b (or PB R&B as its become known). Krell has made it possible to take these risks without fear of condemnation. There is a sense in 21st century that anything is possible for a young and talented maverick and he really uses that freedom to his advantage here.

So we get ‘Repeat Pleasure’, a tune that takes Krell’s voice in a series of adventurous and quirky directions. It’s Justin Timberlake on hallucinogenics. On the surface ‘Repeat Pleasure’ is a simple love song, but as we’ve established, nothing is ever simple with How to Dress Well. Krell has found love and sings joyously of the pleasures it brings, but comes to the conclusion that once you’ve found this joy you will be seeking it for the rest of your life – possibly to no avail. ‘The truth could never come without your smile’ he cries, overcome by knowledge of pleasure that is potentially out of reach. ‘What Is This Heart’ is not a happy album; it acknowledges happiness but knows that happiness is uncertain, and potentially destructive. ‘I can’t understand how the world could hold up all this pain and all this weight’ is the ultimate realisation here and Krell’s conclusion is that there’s ‘no mercy’. Despite the album’s closing thought, that the world is a beautiful place, this is not a particularly uplifting album. It presents a naked, uncomfortable truth and asks you to deal with it.

Krell’s voice, once obscured, looped and distorted beyond recognition, is now bright and clear. You can imagine these tunes being pop hits but at the same time, they would never be pop hits. There is something too otherworldly and off-centre about them. It’s difficult to pin down what it is exactly, but How to Dress Well wouldn’t sound at home on top 40 radio despite making blatant top 40 material (admittedly that says more about the state of top 40 radio than it does How to Dress Well’). Does Krell even want to be the all-conquering mega pop star? All his recent actions seem to be suggesting that he does but the same time I’m sure he’s pretty comfortable as a underground cult artist. Maybe he’ll end up where he started out in college, as the frontman of a punk band. I even read that he sees himself as a 21st century folk artist. His restlessness, hyper-intelligence and curiosity will ultimately prevent him from becoming that pop star you see a glimpse of here, but those traits make him a real artist. As it stands he is one of a handful of the most important people making music in the 21st century and one of the very few genuine musical innovators to emerge this side of the millennium.


Ed Sheeran ‘X’ – Review

1 Jul

Ed Sheeran is one of the most divisive pop stars on the planet. He’s popular enough to beat Coldplay to the fastest selling album of the year but loathed enough to inspire the constantly trending #howshitisedsheeran. One thing I admire about Ed is his unwavering enthusiasm for different genres of music, and his willingness to give everything ago. He’s just as happy putting his own spin on grime, spoken word and r&b as he is folk and pop. This eagerness, combined with his almost humiliating candour, willingness to work with tween-poppers and unnerving sentimentality have made him a massive walking ginger target for criticism. Did he deserve to win the worst dressed category in GQ? Probably. But did he deserve to be nominated for worst act at the NME awards, losing only to One Direction? Certainly not. His debut ‘+’ featured some deeply emotive and sorely bruised pop songs that resonated with a large audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong about any of that.

‘X’ finds Sheeran gleefully ignoring his critics and doubling up on the qualities that made his debut such an opinion splitter. Weren’t impressed by his take on grime? Well at least four tracks this time around feature rapping. Thought ‘Give Me Love’ was corny? It hasn’t got anything on ‘Tenerife Sea.’ This all or nothing approach means that both ‘X’s flaws, and it’s triumphs, are emphasised and exaggerated.

It’s the lyrics that remain the most contentious element of his work; whether it’s his manic-rhyming (true/school/dude/you/truth/you/you are all twisted to fit the rhyme scheme) or wide eyed honesty (‘when I’m away I will remember how you kissed me’), you can understand why the haters hate. I was mostly impressed by his lyricism on ‘+’ because the songs were rooted in specific heartbreak and you could relate to his precise and personal anecdotes. ‘+’ was a cohesive record that could be as funny as it was devastating – all of which made it easy to overlook the odd howler or clunking rhyme. ‘X’ is instantly less coherent. Sheeran’s been on the road for the last two years and these songs speed through different ideas and emotions as quickly as he’s been darting through cities. Basically, there is a disappointing lack of a through line.

On his debut the love songs were damaged and bleeding; they told us how, when, where and why his relationship broke down. All but one of the songs were written about one girl – she’s even named as Alice – and she inspired many shades of sadness. The love songs on ‘X’ on the other hand are generally more vague and gloopy – mostly about how it feels to gain love rather than lose it. That’s an important distinction, as it turns out a moping Ed is a lot more interesting than a happy Ed. Here he relies on clichés and tired symbols – photographs as time capsules, eyes as blue as the ocean and love burns like fire – that convey none of the same depth or power as the personalised stories on ‘+’. His voice sounds better than ever on these bare and brittle songs and the melodies are his sweetest yet but Ultimatley these tunes are nice but offer no friction or conflict.

But I’d still take these nice but boring love songs over some of the other stinkers on the album. ‘Afire Love’ is a rather creepy ode to his grandparents, written in part from the perspective of his granddad seducing his grandmother. It’s odd. ‘The Man’ demonstrates his increasingly impressive flow but essentially just repeats the same story told on ‘You Need Me I Don’t Need You’ and ‘Take It Back’ – bassically a started from the bottom scenario. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable rap. ‘Nina’ on the other hand is neither impressive or enjoyable; its heavy-handed and it’s forced rhymes produce some horrible thoughts about ‘watching a dvd and smoking illegal weed’ followed by allusions to Stevie Wonder and Bon Iver that seem designed to impress rather than help illuminate an emotion.

His dabbles with r&b and gospel are moderately more successful, though neither ‘Don’t’ or ‘Sing’ strike me as particularly noteworthy (the people who made the latter number one may disagree). ‘Runaway’ takes the r&b shtick a little too far, matching the 90’s girl-group melody with 90’s girl group production that sounds dated and out of place. But the best song on the album demonstrates that real heart and emotion trumps sophisticated production anyway. ‘All of the Stars’ comes tacked on as the final bonus track on the deluxe edition of the album, as a throwback to Sheeran’s past, rather than a glimpse of the future. It features in ‘Fault in our Stars’, and like Sheeran, ‘Fault in Our Stars’ has been called melodramatic, overwhelmingly soppy and exploitative of raging teenage emotions. Look closely at the film, and the book on which it is based, and you will find no end of stuff to crticise and cringe at, but I don’t think there is anything necersarily wrong with a good tearjerker. As I say, real heart and emotion will trump most things. Ultimatley that’s why I liked ‘+’ and don’t really like ‘X’ – the debut made me feel something, but for the most part ‘X’ doesn’t. Stripped of the emotion, Ed Sheeran’s music  really doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny – this time at least.