How to Dress Well
Just Once EP
(Love Letters Ink; 2011)
By Calum Marsh | 5 August 2011
A lo-fi project evolving to embrace higher production values is hardly a novel concept in 2011, but then few artists’ lo-fi approach is as central to their appeal as How to Dress Well’s clearly is. For many of the bands populating the so-called “shitgaze” landscape across the past few years, boasting a conspicuously and very self-consciously poor-quality recording was first and foremost about projecting an image of stylized indifference that could be readily identified and digested—which is to say that it was basically just shallow posturing.
A thick layer of distortion could instantly add a sense of authenticity, and thus a bit of value, to otherwise completely rudimentary rock and pop music, I guess because professional-sounding production is symbolically associated with bourgeois values and hegemonic power structures (...or something). It’s an outmoded punk-rock ethos that was already problematic in the analog era but which makes literally no sense now, when conventionally good-sounding recordings are so easy to produce that “obstructions” like noise and distortion need to be introduced deliberately, and it’s been affected so pervasively over the last two or three years alone that even bands who’ve made their careers sounding purposely shitty have ditched the gimmick on recent records.
Which is fine, in most cases: some of the bands who’ve cleaned up revealed their true songwriting prowess, as No Age did on last year’s Everything in Between; some continued to sound terrible, but were at least more open about it, as was the case with Wavves and his Green Day-copping King of the Beach (2010). But now we have How to Dress Well, whose frail and threadbare debut LP Love Remains was practically falling apart at the seams, attempting a similar transition away from the dank recesses of lo-fi and toward the realm of flashy, upper-class professionalism. It’s probably important to note, of course, that Just Once—a brief EP comprised of instrumental renditions of three songs from Love Remains, as well as one entirely new track—is being billed as an experimental holdover between more substantial LPs, meaning that the new style affected across this record may not be the direction Krell plans to take this project in permanently. Just Once finds How to Dress Well’s standard digital toolkit replaced (at least temporarily) by a full-blown string quartet, although this seemingly major change in instrumentation makes less of a difference to the sound of the resulting recordings than does the substantially upgraded quality of the recordings themselves, which sound clean and full-bodied where Love Remains sounded sketch-like and fragile.
This turns out to be an interesting but ultimately disappointing experiment, and the reason for its failure is telling: unlike the posturing shitgaze set who lean on lo-fi as a superficial crutch, How to Dress Well never treated lo-fi as a simple affectation, and as a result he can’t walk away from it so easily. The deliberately damaged sound of Krell’s recordings are an essential aspect of their appeal, and though these string-backed iterations of his material sound quite beautiful on their own, one gets the sense that something important has been lost in the translation. Maybe that’s because Love Remains seemed to consciously comment on, rather than merely gesture toward, their relationship toward noise and distortion—unlike the flat noise of shitgaze, their obscurity seemed considered and substantial. Without that these songs lack something abstract but necessary. One hopes, then, that Just Once is exactly that: a one-time diversion before his next great album.