Better Than: Anything described as “PBR&B.”
Going off his music alone, one might have assumed How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell was another self-absorbed white dude with a decent falsetto and too many feelings.
Though he is indeed white, and has quite a few feelings, Krell was, to my surprise, an exceedingly gracious performer.
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Nite Jewel, who opened last night at the rarely pleasant Irving Plaza, wasn’t quite as self-assured, with an awkward stage presence that evoked Lena Dunham fronting a goth-pop act. The vocals were buried in the mix, making it difficult to appreciate the sweet melodies she sang over ’80s synth beats. At one point, she announced she was covering a song by the “obscure artist” Kate Bush, a joke no one in attendance seemed to get. Nite Jewel’s version of “Hounds of Love” was certainly a level up from her other songs, and proved she is capable of being an engaging performer, if given the right material.
Krell and his band took the stage, playing a set consisting largely of tracks off his new album, Where Is This Heart? Alternating between a dry mic and one loaded with reverb, the band’s louder tracks hit hard with live drums, though Irving Plaza’s tinny sound left something to be desired. A particular highlight was “Face Again,” a song off the new record that finds a good middle ground between Krell’s intensely emotional and pop personas — the mid-song breakdown felt more earned than other “epic” moments throughout the night.
Though the last two How to Dress Well albums have been enjoyable, Krell’s older work, which was intimate and brutally sad, is still his best. After dedicating the song to a dead friend with whom he used to share an apartment in Brooklyn, Krell’s rendition of “Suicide Dream 1” sent shivers all over my body. It’s astonishing how Krell’s voice, which can sound so fragile, hits its mark every time — he’s clearly an incredibly gifted musician. Though it’s understandable that he’s wanted to move in a different direction since the release of Love Remains, even at a show where bigger tracks landed, his recent material still doesn’t quite stand up to the raw emotion of his early work.
Krell talked a lot between songs, and the crowd (or at least the girls by me) only grew more infatuated with him as he spoke. His asides, almost all of which began with “Yo,” ranged from humorous to heartfelt and sincere. Not only did he shout out everyone working at the venue, including the janitors, he later took time out of his set, in front of a variety of J.Crew button-ups, to remind us of the homeless epidemic plaguing the country. “It’s important to remember these people are not in this situation because they did anything wrong,” he told us. “It’s because we stop caring about them.” An awkward silence ensued. Later, a woman requested his cover of R. Kelly’s “I Will.” “I can’t play that song anymore,” he said, as my eyes turned into hearts. “It’s like everyone forgot for five years that R. Kelly is a monster. I still listen to it all the time, but it’s different to come up here as an artist and play it.” A much more awkward silence befell the audience, while the feminists in the crowd rejoiced.
The show ended with a mash-up of new album opener “2 Years On (Shame Dream)” and “Decisions,” two of his most heart-wrenching, dramatic tracks. It was hard not to wish for more of these contemplative, devastating songs, which have so much more to offer than the alt-r&b that dominates his two most recent albums. Though they’ve outgrown the bedroom recordings that first earned them the spotlight, How to Dress Well should be careful not to stray too far from what made them great.
Overheard: “Are you falling in love right now? Because I am.” — Girl standing next to me.
Random Notebook Dump: Shout out How to Dress Well’s multi-instrumentalist’s hopefully real beat-boxing band, Snake Boy. (Note: They don’t seem to be real.)
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 18, 2014