Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
What Is This Heart?
-How To Dress Well (Weird World/Hostess)
In My World
Though Tom Krell’s evolution as an established in-his-own-head R&B singer-songwriter has taken years, it’s difficult to listen to his latest album and not wonder what he thinks of Frank Ocean. No matter how you look at the genre, Ocean owns this peculiar and peculiarly popular new take on soulful romantic effusion, and even if you hand Krell props for his vocal skills you can’t get Ocean’s voice out of your head as you listen to him. If there’s a distinction that becomes apparent with repeated listenings it’s the way Rodaidh McDonald’s production adds a fuller musical clarity to Krell’s songs, something most conventional R&B, even Ocean’s, doesn’t deliver this consistently. The stuttering rhythms and throbbing undertow of “What You Wanted” adds shape to Krell’s typically melody-free verses. And if What Is This Heart? doesn’t stick in the gut as tenaciously as Channel Orange does, it asserts itself more readily as an album in that its appeal becomes more apparent with each subsequent song. By the time you get to “Precious Love,” a delicate and utterly lovely pop song that lingers tortuously on the edge of falsetto ecstasy, you’ll likely have forgotten all of Krell’s more obvious influences. If Ocean had done this song he would have used more genuine instruments, but Krell is obviously selling this collection on his singing, not his production or even his songwriting, and, pardon the stereotyping, but he sounds mighty fine for a white guy. If this doesn’t boost him into the big time nothing will. Matthew David McQueen, on the other hand, while equally obsessed with the slower-metered funk of Prince as it applies to contemporary sex-you-up singers, doesn’t seem particularly interested in the mainstream. If anything, he means to subvert it with his glitchy beats and slightly sarcastic drawl. His fulsome psychedelic touches make him a more original record-maker than How To Dress Well, though, by the same token, a less appealing one. The title cut of his new album would be a perfect match for original-era Stylistics if it weren’t so jagged and hyper, and elsewhere, as on the slightly near eastern “Artforms,” he dabbles in more caucasian-sounding pop that actually benefits from his spacy ministrations, so if he’s gonna mess with the funk, he should at least leave in what makes the style danceable. The freaky touches demand attention that could be better purposed toward enjoyment, which may sound like philistinism, but the forms he’s altering were developed to bring pleasure, so any revisions should at least take that into consideration. Otherwise, they’re just art projects. In an earlier era, In My World would have been called a “drug album,” a description that would have sold its rewards to the kind of people who could appreciate them best. It’s not at all certain that people who like R&B, even the hipster contingent, will get much entertainment value out of this. Continue reading