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Song Premiere: How To Dress Well, '& It Was U'

Tom Krell records under the name How to Dress Well.
Jesse Lirola
Courtesy of Acephale
Tom Krell records under the name How to Dress Well.

Tom Krell is only one man. But as How to Dress Well, he approximates the harmonizing R&B groups of the 1990s — Soul for Real, SWV, Jodeci, Soul II Soul, Immature, Boyz II Men. This is a respectable endeavor, and the closest he's come so far flies out of his second album, Total Loss.

On "& It Was U," he inverts the trend of dropping sampled diva vocals over a house beat — which subsumes the original singer's intent to the new track's purpose — and opens the song with inorganic fingersnaps and then his own voice. It sounds like the melody was born first. On his last album, Love Remains, Krell's lyrics were barely intelligible, so that the brief moments when he slipped into a cover of a slow jam — as in "Ready for the World," in which he sneaks in a recognizable phrase or two from the titular group's "Love Me Down" — were flashes of clarity. Here, the vocals are foregrounded, each track held at arm's length from the other and spun gently around the beat, like cotton candy.

Krell backs into the rhythm, staggered like a heartbeat, in the manner of an R&B singer, but the song opens up when the four-on-the-floor beat takes over. It's the simplicity of it, the solidity, which frees movement in his vocal. He teases the beat and makes it clear it's replaceable. "& It Was U" is irrepressible, the kind of song that makes you push your partner away on the dance floor so you have enough room to really move.

Joyful though it sounds, this is a solitary song: a one-man operation in which Krell makes promises, pretends to be the woman, and then makes promises on her behalf. It's the dream. That creative insularity is one way he can reach for the coattails of the great solo R&B singers, who weave their own tracks on tracks on tracks into metallic timbres to build luxuriant, otherworldly, impossible worlds — Aaliyah, Maxwell, Sade, Prince.

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Frannie Kelley
Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.