By Ryland Walker Knight
Last night at The Independent, How To Dress Well kicked off a short tour (10 shows in this second half of March) with Forest Swords, playing new songs from a forthcoming album. On the heels of the release of "Words I Don’t Remember,” a new single, HTDW has assembled a more or less "real" band for these dates, with Tom Krell expanding his live act from a duet with Aaron Read (electronics, violin, guitar, bass) to quartet with Destroyer’s Larissa Loyva (keys/synths, backing vocals) and Broken Social Scene’s Justin Peroff (drums, laptop).
Krell’s previous visit was a spot supporting Sky Ferreira at the Rickshaw Stop, but he had no trouble selling out The Independent, its floor clogged with iPhone-ready and booze-addled fans eager to bathe Krell in coos, assuaging his anxieties about playing so many new songs. Throughout the night, Krell would banter about how this was the first time people were hearing these new tunes (eight of the 14 songs), but each was greeted with bumping, grinding adoration.
HTDW has always trafficked in “sad rave” vibes, but Krell made a point to joke that "I only write emo songs now" after introducing a new song called “What You Wanted” as “being really shitty about your desires, and incredibly basic; like being a teenager about your desires and always wanting something more and new.” It’s a fun song, actually, hitting that sweet spot of enough bounce to lift the moping and wailing Krell has become known for. He sings in a high falsetto not unlike everybody in R&B’s idol, Prince, but his music is more indebted to 1990s groups like Dru Hill, and everybody’s fallen star, Aaliyah. Or, that’s the vibe on the pop-ier songs, like the new jam “Very Best Friend.” But there remains a strain of unabashed sadness, too: Krell reminded the crowd that his first visit to San Francisco in 2010 was planned, under "less than ideal circumstances,” in order to record a song called “Suicide Dream 1” that he wrote to mourn a close friend. Nevertheless, he says it’s still his favorite song to sing.
Among the other new songs was one Krell described as “a sort of reggae, emo, early Animal Collective song,” drawing on pop-punk and Rich Homie Quan. Another was inspired by the idea that if you’ll do something once, you’ll probably do it twice (which may not necessarily be a good thing), that Krell hopes becomes a radio single after “Words” has its run. Details on the record are mum, however, as the first thing Krell told the crowd was: “I just got a text message from my manager and he’s like, whatever you do on stage, don’t say the name of your album or the release date of it.” He laughed his way into a terrifically sad opening number, but not before promising to have fun soon.
The night started with the likely final show of locals EN, the duo of multi-instrumentalists James Devane and Maxwell August Croy, who layered koto and other sine waves, all the sounds (pedaled or pure) processed by Devane over syncopated electronics for a beautiful 20-minute welcome, accented by visuals from another local, the visual artist Paul Clipson. I was told Krell has invited similar experimental audio-visual artists to open each show on each stop of this tour, one imagines to lend necessary contrast against the sad pop he sings and the dub-like moods Forest Swords conjur from a similar duet of live bass and an assortment of electronics. Forest Swords’ newest work was released by Tri Angle Records, but their songs have more traditional rhythms than many of that label’s “witch” music. In fact, I joked with my friend that the Forest Swords set sounded like the saddest sex you’ve ever had, while EN and Clipson made me wish I could walk around inside those tones with my own 16mm eyes ready to chop up the light of the world.
On the other hand, even without Krell’s formerly standard encore cover of “I Wish” by R. Kelly, which he says he can’t sing anymore out of political correctness (divorce the song from the man! keep the song the song!), How To Dress Well’s set made me happy he’s at the forefront of this new genre of white guys making R&B music -- at least in part because he just seems so jazzed to play his songs, to be present in his life as an artist on a stage.
Setlist and other notes
“What You Wanted” -- being really shitty about your desires, and incredibly basic, and being a teenager about your desires and always wanting something more and new
“Cold Nights” -- as a ‘metal’ song, still not very metal
“Very Best Friend” -- dancey, sisqo-y, love song
“No More Death” -- ‘not fun, lets make it super dark for this one please’
“Facing Up” -- i don’t know what’s best for me
“Suicide Dream 1” -- first visited SF in 2010, recorded song with orchestra, to commemorate a friend who had just died -- his favorite song to sing
“Chop and pick’m up” -- reggae emo animal collective song
“” -- Radio single -- If you’ll do something once, you’ll probably do it twice
“Words I Don’t Remember”
“Set It Right”