The cover art for Love Remains features rocks, some patches of grass and dirt aside a pavement lit only by carlight. There are a few shadows, some weeds. Beyond that, nothing. Pitch black. As a picture, it’s unremarkable. As a preview for the music inside, it does just fine.

How To Dress Well

Love Remains
Lefse

Love Remains, the debut full-length for How To Dress Well, is a sparse, dimly lit collection of layered samples, indecipherable vocals and the occasional hook caught in the headlight. It’s a collection of previously released tracks from over a years’ worth of free EPs all from the bedroom of Tom Krell, a relative recluse and avid fan of ’90s R&B. Krell’s music isn’t so much song-craft as it is sound-craft, with plenty of hip signifiers: low fidelity, drum loops, ounces of reverb. But How To Dress Well hurdles trend by achieving a distinct sound, that, if taken on its own terms, is hypnotic.

How To Dress Well has been tagged “lo-fi R&B,” an adequate if not limiting label. Krell’s music doesn’t so much evoke the sound of ’90s R&B as much as it sounds like their demo tapes fading into the ether. Love Remains‘s 14 tracks forgo standard pop tropes, preferring to inhabit and explore a texture before fading away. Verse, chorus and hook are as nascent as the lyrics. Rhythms are mid-to-slow tempo. Throughout, Krell’s sometimes buried, sometimes blaring multi-tracked voice echoes and conducts.

Krell’s voice bears a striking resemblance to Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver, whose For Emma, Forever Ago could be Love Remains‘s outdoorsy cousin. Their vocal qualities have a clear similarity, with husky low-ends, piercing falsetto and warm harmonies. But it’s bigger than that. Like Vernon’s vocals on Emma, Krell’s voice is the glue that keeps these songs from falling to pieces. The beats and sound clips that make up Love Remains feel loose and tentative, and they cling to the life and movement of Krell’s voice as closely as acoustic guitar did to Vernon’s.

Song titles are about as much as you’ve got to go off for lyrical content here. Shadowy pronouns and mumbled vocalizations fill tracks like “Suicide Dream 2,” one of many songs that sounds like it died a long time ago. From “Can’t See My Own Face” to “Escape Before the Rain,” the sound of fading, looped samples and cloudy singing embody few, if any, R&B trademarks. There’s no sex.

If anything, Love Remains‘s songs bear the mark of something so devoid of anything resembling love. In interviews, Krell says his intent is to express feeling without vocal clarity, without lyrics. By his own admittance, in some cases, the words are “mostly not there.”

But something remains. From the cosmic elegy of “Escape Before the Rain” to the somber hall-of-mirrors on “My Body,” Love Remains finds its singular place between coldness and warmth. With or without words, How To Dress Well crafts his own, very personal, night music. Whether Krell wants to turn on the brights and take it out of “lo-fi” is up to him. But there’s a bigger risk in letting those headlights surprise you once in awhile, isn’t there?

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