By Russell Warfield
August 8, 2012
When your recorded output relies on shivering layers of vocal and deliberately murky bedroom-recording atmospherics, then the translation of your material to the stage can sometimes be awkward. And indeed, with reports from How To Dress Well’s first run of UK dates last year, this seemed to be the case—the kindest description of these performances (comprised solely of Tom Krell singing alone to a backing track) being “the most emotional karaoke ever,” but frequently being more unambiguously received as a flatly disappointing showcase of the shattering emotion and eerie grooves of his excellent debut record.
Tonight, Krell still comes armed with visuals and a backing track, but also makes some subtle but wise additions on the live instrumentation front—flanking himself with a solitary violin and a keyboard player to lace out a host of these tracks. Also, of course, he’s armed himself with a staggering collection of songs which make up his upcoming LP Total Loss slightly more conducive to live performance (but more unbridled, gibbering gushing on that in a few weeks…). Since Krell is necessarily reduced to a more organic performer in the live setting (stripped of his production technique of creating ethereal auras by layering his own falsetto on top of itself again and again), the addition of more organic instrumentation feels not only welcome, but almost necessary. Debut LP highlight ‘Suicide Dream 2’ makes the best translation from record to stage: being performed completely live, Krell reconfigures the beast not just texturally, but lyrically—stripped of its dank atmospherics, it’s laced with a new and devastating drama thanks to its nakedness, directness and audible poetry.
But that’s not to say that Krell doesn’t go for the jugular plenty often. New LP highlight ‘Set It Right’ and an unknown newer-than-new-LP track blow the place apart by gorging themselves on noise, offering an unlikely counterbalance to the delicacy of a lot of the material—swelling through the room in a fierce and abrasive way. But then there’s always been a certain breadth of diversity to the How To Dress Well sound which can easily go undetected, owing to the ease with which Krell’s deeply affecting falsetto allows his various aural experiments to hang off a mutual framework—moving from slinky beats, to chest-ripping tenderness, to ferocious noise, or even to a sly R Kelly cover, completely smoothly owing to the distinctive mood which bleeds through all of Krell’s material from his stunning vocal performance. And it’s the final number of the night which really brings this home: an a capella rendition of ‘Decisions’ which silences a room without even bringing a microphone to his lips. It’s the voice which brings this disparate material together as well as elevating it from mere curious, hipster R&B experimentation—and, following an excellent showcase of ambitious aural experimentation, there could have been no better close to the set than the opportunity to appreciate that in full, without distraction.