By Jacob Gellman
“Two things: it’s so hot in here. And it smells like fucking hot dogs.” Just two songs into his set at Neumos, Tom Krell (a.k.a. How To Dress Well) was feeling the heat. It did smell like fucking hot dogs – a door left ajar on house right was letting a hot dog stand’s odors waft directly into Neumos, filling the Seattle venue with a tear-inducing smoked sausage sensation. “We’ve never taken our shirts off at a show,” Krell regretfully explained, ignoring pleas from audience members to do so anyway.
It’s hard to believe the heat was bothering him, because every moment felt like he was on the brink of explosion, building suspenseful crescendos and belting falsetto riffs during songs like “Cold Nites.” He exhibits so much range in his studio recordings that I scarcely believed he could execute those vocal parts with such power, or with such smooth control. He projects wonderfully.
Krell played no instrument, instead going “full frontman” to deliver those expressive R&B melodies. Knowing nothing about his live performances, I honestly expected him to play some kind of instrument, especially considering he programs his own music. In retrospect it was a good thing – it freed him to move, and it removed a psychological barrier between the musician and the audience. The true problem was the rest of the instrumentation, or lack thereof. In an age when prerecorded instrumental tracks have become ubiquitous, my opinion on the laptop’s role in live music wavers from musical purist to open-minded progressive. Really, the difference between a full sound and a canned sound is largely a function of the equipment and the venue, which perhaps explains my ambivalence on the matter – I have certainly seen laptop bands fill the space with deep electric bass and synthetic keyboards as musicians dance around stage, hands-free. But on this night Krell’s amazing vocal talent occasionally sounded like it was backed by flat karaoke tracks. This is an injustice not just to him as a performer, but to the music itself, which sounds so rich and textured in the studio recordings.
In actuality, Krell was accompanied by two Canadian musicians that handled programming, laptops, violins, keyboards, and backing vocals, as well as a live drummer. But almost all of the heavy lifting came from prerecorded tracks. The drums felt ancillary to the recorded percussion, even though the best moments were when the drummer actually played lead. Synthetic effects definitely enhanced How To Dress Well’s live parts. Krell used two microphones, one for clean vocals and one for effects-laden sections, which added great contrast. I was surprised to hear deep bass vocals like those on “Face Again” sung by the only female on stage, whose microphone had a pitch modifier. The live violin had a tasteful amount of reverb to match the atmospheric music, and the live keyboards sounded absolutely ghostly. The music needed so much more of those elements.
In the end, the mixing may reflect How To Dress Well’s shift from 2012’s Total Loss to this year’s “What Is This Heart?”, an album that featured a more vocal-centric style. Krell is certainly a rare talent, but a concert is a package deal. Post-performance, as I consumed a veg dog with cream cheese from the neighboring sausage stand, I longed for the sound of those studio recordings, where the levels were always right and the balance always equal.