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Photo by OneThirtyBPM

It’s not supposed to rain this hard in Los Angeles, so when it does, the freeways turn into death ponds. Cars skitter like billiard balls, dumping hard mist onto windshields of trailing cars for a three-lane radius. I almost made it ten miles west on the I-10 before all five lanes of traffic ground to a sickening halt. Blue and red flickers in the rearview, and then the emergency flotilla began to show up. It was 45 minutes of cringing stand-still before they finally cleared a lane, leaving half a dozen fiberglass abortions alongside like fat sacrifices to the curiosities the morbid collective as we puttered past the steaming rubble at a speeding snail’s pace. You could practically taste the question souring everyone’s tongue as they drove by: “Gee, where did they put the bodies?”

Initially I brushed this off as a minor setback to Friday evening’s plans. But when I arrived at The Echo, Tom Krell of How To Dress Well began the show by declaring that he had also had an interesting day. “To say the least.” He was held up on the tarmac at O’Hare for a solid two hours which induced, “a bout of hallucinogenic depression.” Sadly, he didn’t elaborate, concluding this seductively dark intro by combing a hand through his hair and starting his set.

Turns out, the big twist about How To Dress Well: The Live Act, is that it doesn’t sound very much like the album at all. Love Remains features 90’s R&B vocals (delivered by Krell) overlaid by electronic shoe-gaze sound collage a la Burial. In person though, the weather’s only partly cloudy sound-wise, and the R&B vocals shine right through. There are no synths set up for the show, no turntables, no wires, no knobs, no shiny equipment that look suspiciously like kitchen wares: the stage is threadbare, save for Krell and a microphone. His live act makes a bold bid for total honesty and blunt intimacy; the aural clutter of the record is severely downsized.

He gives a brief intro: “This is like, my gay/Queen/powerpop song.” Then the music from the album sputters from the speakers as Krell, a lanky 6’5″ figure looming large on the lip of the stage, begins to sing over it. Over it. With the fluff and fuzz of the album turned way down, his voice is strikingly beautiful. Excruciatingly beautiful, even. A craning, aching falsetto. He sings with his eyes closed mostly, white-knuckling the mic to his clenched-tight teeth. For some reason, the empty micstand remains—the only thing up there other than Krell—and there is surprisingly little contrast between their shapes. Think Jack Skellington and you’re not too far off; his towering figure cuts a giant jagged shadow from the projection on the backwall. Mostly standing still, he sways coyly and periodically tosses his head back to hit high notes. He keeps time in cord coils, wrapping the generous lengths around his flexed mic hand. Every so often he shrugs them off and starts fresh.

But right from the get-go, Krell looks drained. He keeps it together okay during the songs, but in the in-betweens he’s a real mess. Here’s Krell pacing in a wobbly circle around the barren stage, both hands clawing through his long black hair. Here’s Krell finishing a water bottle and throwing it violently stage right. Here’s Krell turning away from the crowd, approaching his own shrinking shadow in the back wall’s projection, and then hanging his head between his knees for an agonizingly quiet thirty seconds. “I’m sorry,” he mutters each time, “I’m sorry.” “You know,” he begins during one break, “it’s interesting… life…” but that’s all he manages. I don’t know whether he normally plays an encore; tonight he just makes a beeline for his drink and limps off stage. While the audience is still clapping, he returns to the mic to remind the guy to turn off the projector.

The jury’s still out on whether or not this stark set-up is the best way to render How To Dress Well. The hipsters, though admittedly well-dressed, received the act coolly: by the third song, there was steady, crescendoing chatter at the back of the venue; more and more people filtered out the side door for cigarette breaks; people were way too attentive to their beer refills. Personally, I’m a little on the fence about the whole thing. On the one hand, it was a totally different experience than the album, which can be a great thing. On the other (although no one had the heart to say this out loud, thank God) it was barely a stone’s throw away from Tom Krell Karaoke Night.

Which pulls the crucial question right up onto the stage: what are we looking for when we go to a concert? I’d assumed it was something like intimacy, the kind that Krell, poor miserable Tom Krell, seemed to shell out to the crowd in spades. I’d assumed that what we want is for those sound waves, fantasized over like lovers lost abroad whose voices spray out at us from car radios and bedroom speakers and clunky black headphones, to finally take on a shape. We want those waves to be physical forms—actual bodies that will surround us and smother us once and for all, damn it. We want to be asked to dance. But then again, I guess it’s all or nothing. It’s not enough to have Tom Krell’s Clarks shoelace trailing off the stage, an arm’s length away, while those sound collages remain in the background, disembodied, slipping right through our frantic fingertips. We want it all, to see and hear those sounds assembled in front of us. We want some dude to sweat over a switchboard to make us happy. Death to illusions—we want to see and feel everything.

(By the way, this is a problem facing electronic music acts at large, not just How To Dress Well.)

So I suppose that Krell, for all his own emotional honesty, didn’t quite make good on the promise implicit in the spectacle of live music. Too bad, Tom. You’ve got a beautiful singing voice. Lucky for me though, it was still raining when I left the Echo. Creeping back east on the danger-slicked I-10, I cleared the crest of a hill and spotted a nauseating sea of brakelights on the horizon. They weren’t moving. I exited promptly (what’s that saying? Fool me once, fool me twice…?) and found my way back to Claremont via a web of dimly lit side streets. But before that, as I drove up the exit ramp, I couldn’t help but look down at the terror below me. And although the westbound side of the roadway lay unobstructed by debris from the accident, it too was congested. Traffic there slowed to about ten miles per hour: as luck would have it, precisely the pace at which it’s possible to catch a free show.

Review by Max Lebo