The Complicatist : How To Dress Well

Memory and desire – plus, the best of 2010

by Gordon Campbell

Of the five types of weeping recognized by the Kaluli/Bosavi people of the southern highlands of New Guinea, two of the more melodic versions are reserved for women, and one variation – sa-yalab, or ‘inside weeping’ – is said to have been inspired by the cry of the fruit dove. While sa-yalab usually starts out as a solo expression of grief, other women may be moved to join in and weave together their memories, tributes, feelings of desolation and perspectives ( eg as daughter, sister or spouse) on the dear departed in ways that interlock, without ever quite becoming polyphonic in any Western sense.

The Kaluli term for this form of musical grieving translates as ‘lift–up-over sounding’ – which seems like a great description for any kind of sad music that makes you feel better. Yet there’s more to it than simply purging the emotions. Like much of the new electronica, Kaluli music is about the relationship of sound to physical space, and how the course of the music conveys information about the physical landscape :

This is the term [ie, lift-up-over sounding] for this sound world’s spatial and temporal interplay. Out of the density of sounds “solos” appear only to be registered momentarily and relayered into the overall density. The sonic poetry of the forest is here, in this textural density. Each of the audio immersions is meant to indicate a different way that multiple sound sources interlock, overlap, and alternate to create this acoustic space that keeps arching up as it moves forward. This is how the sound tells the listener the exact hearing position, the time of day, season of year, and the orientation of the forest geography.

So, in this PNG culture at least, music functions as a form of sonic geography. even when it is referring to human relationships. (Maybe the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs were hinting at something similar in ”Maps.”) I happened to stumble across the Kaluli/Bosavi while trying to get a handle on a few recent tracks by How to Dress Well, the low-fi bedroom project of Tom Krell, a philosophy student cum musician who splits his time shuttling between Brooklyn NY, and Cologne.

The best way I can describe How To Dress Well is that it sounds like a lament for the ghost of Keith Sweat, or for mid 80s Michael Jackson. Krell hollow outs and gives spooky spatial resonance to old school r&b, his falsetto vocal rising and falling in distorted fragments throughout the mix. In contrast to r&b’s usual lubricious celebration of the booty call, How To Dress Well seems more about the memory of desire, doing justice to beauty only after it has taken its leave. I think the Kaluli would get it.

The examples I’ve chosen below are all from HTDW’s debut album Love Remains. The video for “Decisions” also happens to be a lovely looking piece of work. Other prime examples of Krell’s re-working of r& b include “Ecstasy with Jojo” which repetitively samples a line from Michael Jackson’s ‘Baby Be Mine’ track from Thriller….

Best of 2010

Its been a good year, especially for female artists, Sleigh Bells heady conjunction of light metal, femme vocals and Spectorian pop ( eg“Rill Rill,” “Tell ‘Em’ and the distortion classic “ Crown On The Ground”) was an early highlight of the year. Robyn’s strike rate was exceptional. Her several Body Talk EPs and year – end compilation album offered consistently wry and intelligent dancepop that incidentally laid waste to Lady Gaga’s pretensions in this field. Hard to choose among Robyn’s output between the likes of “ “Fembot,” Dancing On My Own” “Call Your Girlfriend” and the epic “ Cry When You Get Older.”

This slow, live version of her earlier hit “Hang With Me” is also a riveting song about a woman trying to manage the boundaries between friendship and a relationship. In the context of this song, “ I know what’s on your mind/there’ll be time for that too” is a terrific throwaway line. The live version of “ Fembot” is also a knockout. In hip hop, the young New Orleans rapper Curren$y and his two Pilot Talk albums came of age in 2010 as a serious threat. The satirical duo Das Racist managed to celebrate old school rap, spoof it and make sharp and funny social comment all at once. “Chicken and Meat” is a pretty hilarious entrée to the DR world.

Yet for out of the ballpark ability, 2010 belonged to Janelle Monae. The official video for the “ Tightrope” single and follow-up’ ‘Cold War’ showcase her singing and dancing, and dramatic presence. Good cameo on ‘Tightrope’ too, by her mentor Big Boi from Outkast – and BB’s own Sir Lucius Leftfoot – The Son of Chico Dusty was another consistently strong album highlight of 2010 as well. Hip Hop Not Quite Dead, obviously. As a bonus, I’ve thrown in “Sea Talk” by Zola Jesus for no good reason other it has a girl-and TV set moment that benignly invokes the key moment from The Ring. Yet overall….I think the track that best represents the headlong best and moronic worst of 2010 in one place, would have to be Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint” single. Hard driving, dramatic, empty, going nowhere but kind of ingratiating. Yep, quite a lot like 2010.


Footnote : Just discovered this interview with Tom Krell of How To Dress Well, in which he says his music isn’t a multiplex big budget effort like the Bourne movies, but more of an art film affair like the Robert Bresson film Au Hasard Balthasar. Which would be sort of OK (though since Bresson’s movie is one of the greatest films of all time, Krell is not exactly being modest here) if he then didn’t go and fuck things up entirely by describing Au Hasard B as being a film about a horse. Has he even seen it? As my daughter said, that’s like comparing your music project to The Leopard, and then calling it an Italian film about a puma.

ENDS