Last Saturday indie royalty was in town as How to Dress Well, the fuzzy R&B alter-ego of Tom Krell, played Olde Club with New York electro-pop upstarts BLKKATHY opening.
BLKKATHY describe their music in a press release as “sad songs over very heavy bass beats, but dancey songs nonetheless,” and that’s about right. Dancey at times feels dubious, as some of their songs resemble rhythmically intricate dirges more than club anthems, but the two-fold classification of “beat” and “song” accurately reflects the incongruity of the smooth, “I don’t give a shit” vocal aesthetic with their anxious, industrial-influenced beats.
This tension can be quite exciting. Throw in fabulously unpretentious, usually sexual lyrics — “I’m not sad for my fat ass,” “You left me damp in your perfume / Of sex and beer,” “Imma shake you off boy / Imma lose your name,” etc. etc. — sparse synth instrumentation, and some infectious, swinging choruses — “Shake You Off” breaks out a swaggering bass line reminiscent of the distinctive hook from Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up To Dry” — and you get some great stuff. “Fake B***h” is an eerie, throbbing head-nodder, while “Dem Bones” approaches the dance-floor end of the spectrum with subdued bass and a carefree handclap shuffle.
BLKKATHY’s live set was delayed by unknown technical difficulties, and they were ultimately forced to improvise around. As presented, their live set-up could use some improvements in order to reach the quality of their first recordings, though a more attentive crowd would have probably helped their performance.
As How to Dress Well, Tom Krell has accumulated considerable acclaim in recent years for his reverb-soaking, mournful brand of R&B. Those two adjectives should be taken as literally as possible, with uncomplicated structures and distinctively airy R&B vocals buried below centuries of fossilized reverb, and lyrics exploring themes of death, depression, love, freely exploring the deeply personal.
His CV — philosophy graduate student “who splits his time between Brooklyn and Cologne” — reads like Pitchfork’s sweaty fantasy, and when his debut album Love Remains was released they and similar blogs reacted accordingly. Hype set aside (as much as it can be), his music remains compelling. While his debut album was filled with almost indecipherably muddy tracks, fragile, pretty melodies ready to break apart, Total Loss combines his keen melodic sense with spacious beats and meticulous sound design. The result is necessarily more conventional, since much of the project’s strangeness came from the deliberately shitty package in which it was immersed, but the direct emotional style and tendency to lapse into blissful ambience remain there.
Krell insists that HTDW evades classification with other similarly inventive contemporary R&B acts, and traces his musical upbringing from `80s and `90s R&B through the experimental underground (no coincidence, perhaps, that he lists Grimes — an ex-experimenter [what a great word] similarly graduated to fractured pop — as a close friend). “If you take any of the other musicians that I’m usually grouped in with and compare any of our records,” he boasted in a Pitchfork interview last year, “you’ll find that I make much weirder music than any of them.” Sadder, maybe, and more inscrutable (if only because submerged in layers of reverb and tape hiss), but his description reads hyperbolic, particularly as his newer work eschews extremes of distortion and moves toward more conventional pop. Place tracks like “Cold Nites” next to The Weeknd on a mixtape and this preening becomes a little ridiculous.
An inevitable dimension of Krell’s proudly experimental outlook is a similarly self-impressed eclecticism. This too can become tiring. The introduction of found sound into Total Loss’s mix — the first track is a William Basinski homage, though a somewhat superficial one — and the inclusion of a feeble Steve Reich imitation hardly place him at the front of contemporary music’s fragmented avant-garde. And Total Loss’s sole dance track “& It Was U” is a great song, but it really doesn’t need to be introduced with “This is a dance song,” as it was on Saturday; once the kick drum kicks in, we get it. Despite frequent pretentions otherwise, Krell’s music is pretty stylistically homogeneous. In part, that’s what makes it great.
Krell’s self-consciously introspective personality has fed naturally into a reputation as a bit of a diva, and Saturday’s Olde Club show only reinforced this view. His evident initial excitement with playing an unannounced show in an intimate space (“Yo Philadelphia this is gonna b a very very rare performance tonight candle lit and sooooo lovely,” he tweeted, along with, “Hell ya we r playing in a cottage that used to be a frat and is now a women’s resource center vibinggggggg yesssss”) quickly faded to (loudly expressed) exasperation with technical difficulties, including persistent feedback, and, apparently, his inability to get any good whiskey around here. He repeatedly paused in the middle of songs to yell things like “I can’t hear shit” or refer derisively to the sound system as a “bar mitzvah set-up.” Sure, there were technical and sound issues, but it’s Olde Club. There are always sound issues. The space isn’t much bigger than some dorm lounges. What could you possibly expect?
Complaining about the set-up’s limitations also risks ignoring its potential benefits. When Ben Vida opened for Tim Hecker last year his electronic blitzkriegs and swooping bass made Olde Club shake like an airplane during lift-off. It was terrifying, but Vida kept twiddling his dials, savoring the thrill of imminent collapse. Similarly, once Krell stepped away from his mics, the cramped space made his a capella digression more powerful, immediate, close. Appreciating this sooner might have eased his frustrations.
And even the amplified, electronic stuff sounded fine. Pissy attitude aside, it was actually a good show; his newer material in particular translates surprisingly well to a live setting, though even his most hushed, ambient pieces seemed at home in Olde Club. His dextrous use of two mics created an enthralling, warped effect, and his vocals were spot on. Setting the attitude aside is a bit hard, though, since one main issue was that it was, apparently due to Krell’s unresolved issues with the sound system, an annoyingly short set. It could have been shorter: towards the end, Krell’s travelling bandmate had to convince him to continue.
This show was the second big score for Olde Club this month, following up on Mykki Blanco, provocative, hype-laden pioneer of New York’s burgeoning “queer-rap” scene (speaking of dubious labels, this is one of them, for somewhat obvious reasons), who did her best to rev up a disappointingly small, sleepy crowd. This Saturday, rapper Mare Advertencia Lirika will take the stage.