“He’s like an ambient R. Kelly,” describes one girl to her friend. Both are waiting outside of Portland’s Holocene for How To Dress Well, the project of solo musician Tom Krell, to take the stage.

As simultaneously flattering and unflattering any comparisons to R. Kelly might be, they are, in this case, not entirely appropriate or accurate. Tom Krell of How To Dress Well is not R. Kelly though he may have a cadence that is similar. Nor are the differences found in both musicians’ adoration of ’90s R&B, which in Krell’s case, was evidenced by slyly inserted homages to songs like INOJ’s “Love You Down” and R. Kelly’s “I Wish”.

Obvious fact of race aside, what separates Krell from a musician like R. Kelly is stage presence. Whereas one might expect R. Kelly to sloppily fall on his knees and babble when seized by the power and might of soul music, watching Krell is arresting in a completely different way. Krell is certainly brimming with passion, but in a much more reserved sense, coming off sometimes more as a choir boy than a soul singer. One almost wishes at times that he would throw more caution into the wind, to not only sing words with conviction, but to get a little less controlled, more possessed, and more anything goes in his entire being.

Portland, OR @ Holocene – June 14th, 2012

 

On this tour, Krell was joined by two bandmates who provided backing beats, violin, guitar, and keyboard accompaniments. Yet, despite the added hands, the arrangements were extremely sparse and far removed from the How To Dress Well one finds on record. This difference is both appealing and unappealing. Having Krell front and center as vocalist — and only vocalist — is a rare and welcome change in the indie performance world, and bringing a capella songs to an uncontrolled venue setting requires a respectable amount of bravery. But by the third a capella track in one set, the lack of diversity in the arrangement and the lack of vocal filters can become tiring. Concertgoers are able to hear Krell’s voice in all of its clarity, sure, but much more desirable is the incorporation of that delicacy with the highly-affected vocals one hears on record.

Perhaps the most helpful component of HDTW’s live performances are its accompanying video projections. Ranging from minimal to extremely psychedelic, they are all held together by a prominent use of rich off-blacks that hint towards sad and subtle beauty. Again, one has to take a moment here to applaud Krell’s willingness to bare his soul for all to see, for, like a wounded sprite nightly clearing out past emotional difficulties, he is not afraid of embracing fragility in front of a roomful of people.

How To Dress Well’s music has the capacity to create environments and moods that touch people deeply and reach into their nostalgic and sentimental cores, and this is the reason that those who love Krell love him deeply. Hence, the criticisms in this review are meant to be genial and to serve as a friendly challenge to an artist who has much more wide-reaching potential than he is currently living up to. As it stands, How To Dress Well’s live show is good, but caters mostly to those who are already fans. Some work and out-of-the-box experimentation are absolutely necessary to make the show truly amazing.

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How To Dress Well – “Ready For The World” / “I Wish” (Cover)

R. Kelly – “I Wish” (Original)

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