February 26, 2011
Better than: That super-emo playlist you made after a bad break-up.
Unlike many of the other acts at this year's Noise Pop festival, How To Dress Well, a.k.a. Tom Krell, was making his first appearance in S.F. this past Saturday night, which made his sold-out show all the more exciting. The experimental pop artist, who buries his R&B-influenced compositions under layers of effects and sound walls, has been oft-discussed by music nerds since the release of debut album Love Remains last year.
By the time I got to Cafe Du Nord, I had missed opener Chelsea Wolfe's apocalyptic folk/metal set. And based on the positive rumblings I heard about her performance, which included a full band with a celloist, I'm still regretting missing it.
But I did manage to get there in time for Shlohmo's set, wherein the experimental hip-hop/electronic producer put together a live mix featuring songs from his upcoming album. And it wasn't just instrumentals. Shlohmo was adding his own vocals to his spooky, emotive, disorted productions. Vocals which were wrapped in layers of reverb-y, overdubbed bliss -- and the end result was pretty great. One track in particular, "Places," had those in the crowd collectively nodding their heads. It basically sounded like D'Angelo if he were making music 10 years in the future.
After enduring a lengthy wait, the S.F. pop duo Dominant Legs and its backing band brought a very different sound onstage, one they say leans towards '80s and '90s pop, but also has undeniable '70s/twee/Belle and Sebastian influences. While Dominant Legs played a tight set and sounded fine, something about it just felt cold and lifeless. Maybe it was the fact that everyone was more or less locked in place on the tiny stage, or that the band's sound didn't have much in common with the other three acts. It just wasn't an attention-grabbing affair, although couple of tracks, such as "Young At Love And Life," made my ears perk up.
After Shlohmo appeared again to warm up the crowd by DJing a set of chopped and screwed R&B tapes from the '90s, How To Dress Well was ready to take the stage and deliver the main event. A one-man act in the studio, How To Dress Well is also just one man on stage, as Krell stood alone with only a wall of projected video behind him.
Kicking things off by cryptically mentioning he'd been having a strange week, Krell launched into his single, "Lovers Start," swaying left and right as he delivered the vocals over the backing instrumental track. Normally, the vocals on How To Dress Well tracks are washed and blended into the the melodies and ambient sounds of the instruments. But live, Krell leaves his vocals mostly unprocessed, letting them become the focal point of the songs.
The hour-long set consisted mostly of tracks from the album, each of which drew applause from the crowd and an ever-so-polite "thank you" from Krell every time. He performed the non-album single "Take It On," which he described as being "kind of a banger" (which it is), and "Mr. By & By," which he labled his "gay queen anthem." And of course, he ran through many of his stand-out tracks, like "My Body," "Ready For The World," and "Suicide Dream 2," the latter of which was stripped down to just a backing piano melody.
Considering how processed and layered the vocals were on the How To Dress Well albums and EPs released to date, I wasn't entirely sure how Krell's vocal performance would be in a live setting. It started off a little shaky, but once he got into the flow of things and picked up some confidence (dare I say swag?) he proved to be more than capable on the mic. I doubt he'll ever be considered a vocal powerhouse, but he's not tone deaf, and his falsetto vocals never sound flat, which is more than many performers can say. In some cases, I thought the live treatment of the tracks was more interesting than their recorded counterparts.
After slipping in his cover of R. Kelly's "I Wish" at the very end, Krell jumped off stage, only to return a moment later to perform an upbeat Ariel Pink cover, which he said he wanted to do to offset the otherwise morose vibe of his set. Once finished, Krell slipped off stage, concluding How To Dress Well's successful Bay Area debut.
Shortest. Encore. Ever.: After wrapping up his set, the crowd was demanding an encore from Shlohmo. After initially claiming he'd been cut off, he finally caved and played a 10-second sample on his MIDI controller, which is officially the shortest encore I've ever seen.
Snap. Crackle. Pop.: Part of Krell's arsenal of stage moves included a healthy amount of playing around with the mic cord, which he would often swing over his shoulder in dramatic fashion. Unfortunately, the cord on this mic had a loose connection somewhere, and it kept hissing, popping and cutting out, leading Krell to inform Cafe du Nord that "they need to get some better mic cables."