How To Dress Well, Or: When Songs Know They’re Records

Nick Sylvester | November 3rd, 2010

Listening to LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” again, I remember how startled I was at first by the vocals. There seems to be a lot of space between James Murphy’s mouth and the microphone. He is still singing, and it is still the melody, but if most pop vocals are 95% voice and 5% room, Murphy’s here feel about half and half. In major label releases, it is unusual to “hear the room” like this. Not in any pronounced or post-processed heavy reverb sort of way either, but to hear the silence around Murphy’s voice, the room itself. The performance feels more intimate all the sudden — voyeuristic even, to know that at one point in time, Murphy was in some room, singing these words. Musically, the effect is such that Murphy can now “get away” with such a sing-song melody as the one he has written here. The melody might have seemed too saccharine otherwise, or just not interesting enough, had he not drawn subtle attention to the fact of its being recorded.

My guess is that most recording artists have or at least feel this concern: negotiating, down to the sound of the floor tom, how much he or she wants the listener to be aware that Recorded Product X was, in fact, recorded. Sometimes it’s just a fleeting thing, a simple gag. An easy example is studio banter before or after a song, as in Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (“you fucking die!”) or any number of Spoon tracks. Another is Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells’ decision to brickwall-limit instrumentals on Treats. When the mix pinches in “Tell ‘Em,” the effect to my ears is that the recording can barely contain the song it supposedly represents.

When we listen to professional recordings, we are engaged in a suspension of disbelief that What We Are Listening To equals What It Actually Sounds Like. This is the fabric of the rug that’s pulled out from under us when, for instance, Just Blaze turns down the volume of the instrumental on the Game‘s “Church For Thugs” — a quick joke on normalization that I wonder might have kept the great “Church” from being on the radio.

A few weeks ago, a formerly Brooklyn-based lo-fi r&b artist called How To Dress Well released an album that, if this is possible, we might say is aware of its own recorded-ness. The album is called Love Remains. Tom Krell, who as best I can tell is a one-man band here, has a stunning falsetto, and a knack for affecting r&b melodies and unlikely cadences. Stuff you could easily hear on the radio. His songs tend to groove in one way or another. But his productions are aggressive, at times physically uncomfortable to listen to.

When his voice soars along in “You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Going,” it is accompanied by a fierce distortion caused from the vocal track clipping. Another song called “My Body” plays with the trope of call and response; we expect the response to come as an echo, an afterthought, of the call, but Krell’s are significantly louder, more distorted, and closer to the ear, as if the echoes are moving in like homing missiles. In “Suicide Dream 2,” the reverb trails of the vocals stick around for fifteen, twenty seconds, swirling in an imaginary, cathedral-like space. The melody is fleeting, immediately lost in reverb.

But that voice. It isn’t like Krell is hiding behind effects here, which is a legitimate suspicion in other instances of lo-fi. I was curious to find out how deliberate these decisions were, whether this was just a function of Krell’s studio naivete or if there was some kind of argument being advanced.

“A lot of it is straightforward and intentional. A lot of it is what believers in the importance of technical mastery would call wrong notes, or mistakes, or whatever,” Krell explained to me over the phone Monday. “I started really getting into the phenomenon of recording something and having the actual song wink towards its outside, or hint outside itself to the melody, which it seems to be indicating but never gives you in full. That frustration, that experience of the limit of recording is what I’m interested in.”

Raw, unmixed sound is ugly stuff — uglier than many people might suspect. Not just vocal tracks, pre-pitch correction, pre-processing, et cetera. The close-miked sound of a piece of wood hitting a piece of thin plastic — the sound of a snare drum — is ugly. An electric guitar creates an entire spectrum of frequencies, many of which have to be scooped out otherwise said electric guitar track won’t sound like an “electric guitar,” just a “bad electric guitar.” You could argue that commercial pop music is an ongoing Matrix-like attempt, with occasional “glitches,” to keep that ugliness at bay. The way the volume is usually the same throughout, for instance, even though we know that performances are usually more dynamic. The way the instruments stay out of each other’s way, even though we know sound is more textured, messier, more congealed. The way a vocalist sings clearly, directly into our ears, when we know, or knew in theory, that this is a sleight of hand.

“What [hi-fi recording] tries to do at all costs,” Krell put it, “is efface the act of playing and recording the production within itself. It tries to present itself as a finished product, a product without process.” His own efforts as How To Dress Well are, in contrast, an effort to create situations where, in the recording, there’s “an openness to sound. To the idea that sound is taking place,” Krell said, “And how special that is.”

Easy in the abstract. But it’s a process: To de-program decades of What Music Sounds Like, to un-learn the Western distinction between What Is Beautiful and What Is Noise. To get to the place where Krell’s production choices don’t strike some as mistakes and painful mishandlings, or even as deconstructions. Changes on this scale can only happen gradually, which is to say it might take a number of smaller, careful doses a la the vocals in “Dance Yrself Clean” before casual ears are more amenable. So give it just a little more time…