How To Dress Well, Beacons and Hustle & Drone at The Doug Fir, December 7th.
(Notes from my phone instead of a real post; that’s why the tense shifts more than in a Kesey novel.)
I suppose an earlier incarnation of myself might begin with some kind of crack about how “it’d be a grand idea to get bombed for Pearl Harbor Day”, but I’m on a bit of an extended & indefinite wagon ride & also no longer find flip allusions to mass death (link is PG-rated) to be particularly clever, regardless of the country of origin for the deceased, sadly putting me a bit at odds with a great many of my American peers. Wow, ain’t I a load of laughs, bein’ all up in your party & killin’ your fun? Nothin’ like good times with a self-righteous liberal hipster, eh? On to the show review.
I got to the Doug too late to catch the promising sounds of Hustle & Drone, but since they’re a local act, I’m sure I’ll see them around sooner or later. When you’re going to an average of 1.5 shows a night, it feels like there’s no way to avoid seeing every group there is in this city…though I guess that’s with the caveat that the show isn’t metal (I’m not 14 anymore)1, folk (twang scares me & it’s very hard to be distinctively awesome with an acoustic guitar, though definitely not impossible) , international music (reeks of hipster appropriation, especially in this city , in addition to the Hi Fidelity aesthetic grievance against Tim Robbin’s loathsome “Ian” characterization. Also, as long as we’re at it, let’s not forget what an equally loathsome character Rob Gordon is, despite the fact that John Cusack plays him with such charisma & that he also possesses some characteristics that many of us music geeks possess…yeah, my record collection is sorted autobiographically; what of it? Still, the character does some pretty unforgivable things, that haven’t seemed to earn the ire they truly deserve…perhaps I’ll get to that in a later post) or jazz (too many notes). So, to sum up, 60% of the time, I know all of the bands all of the time.2
I descend the stairs, admiring that my two favorite ink stamp choices are being used tonight for 21 plus (inside right) and show admittance (inside left). I’ve already got my earplugs in as I push the swinging doors to the downstairs venue-room midway through the first song in Beacon’s set. They’re a two piece with Jacob Gossett manning the beats and the lion’s share of the music and Thomas Mullarney III on vocals and some electronic equipment as well.
The Brooklyn duo are dressed in that urbane mix of hip-hop-meets-indie-meets-80’s, which just as easily could describe the music as it does the fashion. There’s a really pleasant chillout vibe to go with the big bass, but the crowd seems unsure of what to do about it. It’s a Friday night and they want to dance, and the music is just upbeat enough to make such a thing possible, but there’s not really a scene in this city for the kind of dancing that this music is conducive to (not quite this, but more like that than this.). Somehow I suspect the “don’t know how to dance to this” thing might just be a Portland/PacNW thing, instead of something inherent to the music. I suspect there’s feet moving when they play in Brooklyn, San Francisco & Chicago, but that’s just a hunch. The music is really great and people are feeling it, though, even if still a bit much to dance energetically to & not opiate-laden enough to just drone out to.
The next song has a bit jumpier beats, with minimal bloop & bleep & that’s when I get a glance at the visuals behind the performers which were SRSLY some of the worst things I’ve ever laid eyes on. The music was so good and so moving and then BLAM-O: there are digitally-created mudflap silhouettes circle-dancing in nightmarish unison as if starring in a somehow even more crude & misogynist Robert Palmer video than the original, which would then morph into a “tribal woman” wearing some quasi-headdress kind of thing. A trifecta of horror! Not only offensive for its objectification and racist appropriation, but of such lousy quality to boot.
Seriously, the cheese level on the production of the backing video was no better than this. It’s ok if you hate me a little for showing you that; I hate me a lot for having seen it and finding myself unable to forget it. I know they were going for “trippy” but with what they came up with, if you’re having an “experience” to that, you’re on either so many or so heavy of a drug that you’re having an experience to *anything*. Drugs are dull & boorish, anyhow. Apologies to Brians Eno & Ferry, but I’m of the opinion that this should be the drug, though perhaps a quality gin might care to join for a spell. As enjoyable as the music was, I couldn’t hide my relief at no longer being exposed to the video.
How To Dress Well‘s touring set up is that of a three-piece. Tom Krell, the man behind it all, stands poised between 2 mics, one w/ effects on the vocals, another one somewhat cleaner, and uses them to great effect as stage right handles the beats & stage left plays violin amongst some other things.
Tom opened w/ a greeting; said some nice things abt the room. Seemed glib & comfortable. He mentioned the whole band being sick & exhausted, which got a few sympathy boos & then some heckler in the room yelled “suck it up!”. Unfazed he responded, “Yeah, I know, right? ‘This is your job’,” with a casual & untroubled laugh, then broke into a very soft song in a falsetto. Absolutely mesmerizing. At least it was to me.
The crowd is a little frustrating. This is a big problem w/ my peer group, we are so self-absorbed that we experience the music while talking through it & feel as if we’ve missed nothing. Personally, I’d like to focus on the music, especially when it is as quiet, dynamic & evocative as this is. Anything else is as much of a disservice to the art as wolfing down a Michelin-rated meal in three bites is to cuisine or getting a tattoo while Rollins drives you around in a dune buggy is to art. How To Dress Well deserves undivided attention, even if, as I suspect the inclusion of HTDW in My, What A Busy Week! brings out the B&T crowd still learning how to behave quasi-politely in society. I’m thinking of you, ultra-douche, sitting drunkenly in the corner of the back bar and mercilessly “negging” the lady you were with, in addition to asking her for woefully inappropriate things I’ll not deign to repeat here. I’m trying my damnedest not to be glad that you lost your phone & or to think of it as some sort of Karmic retribution for your grossly-entitled self having lost any sense of decency a long time ago.
Anyhow, back to the awesome: Tom made great use of the mics & was tuned in to the sound in the way a master craftsman is. This guy has studied hard at the church of good time R&B, & then found a way to recreate it with his own weighty twist, Sound of the City writer Eric Harvey’s accusation of “PBR & B” be damned, as well as the gal at the side of the stage who offered a heckle of “R. Kelly!”, to which he responded, “you know, I heard a voice exactly like that, 2 days ago yell out ‘R.Kelly!’ In the same exact way. Makes me wonder, is she following me around on tour?”
This show was clearly the work of a musician who is just perfectly comfortable in his own skin; is glib and relaxed with little to prove besides chasing down the elusive notes and ideas in his own head, imprinted from all those unavoidable KIIS FM New Jack hits of the late 80s & early 90s, spread across the country by Rick Dees during one of those relatively infrequent times when pop radio was more inclusive of disparate styles.3
Krell ended the first song by splitting the mics carefully to use distance to color the volume & clarity of the vocals, displaying real savoir faire at utilizing the mics in a way that was cognizant of what was happening in the house & not just in the monitors.
On the next song, which was a little brighter than the would-be room silencer that the first one was, in the middle of the falsetto, he instructed the sound guy in his booming natural voice to up the sound in the house & that stage right needed more of his own feed in his monitors & then segued back into the song seamlessly, somehow without rupturing the dreamy, ambient feel. Even the mild laughter from a few in the crowd seemed to play into the mood further, somehow.
I can’t escape how the music reminds me of “The Weeknd” & not the Slumberland Records “The Wake Meets Joy Division w/ a scoop of indie pop sprinkles on top” group that is “The Weekend”, but the Canadian bloke, with the great voice & brilliant production & sensitive, heartfelt lyrics, only without his rampant misogyny. Seriously, Mr. Tesfaye, how am I supposed to give any credence to your so-called sensitivity when you are referring to women as the B word? (if you only click on one link in this article, make it that one) You’re sad? That sucks. Know a good place to start to try and sort that out? Don’t make anyone else sad by referring to them in ways that are hateful of who they are by the mere fact of what they were born into.
Thankfully, How To Dress Well, from what I’ve noticed, has been free of that kind of language and sentiment. That said, I can’t make out all of the lyrics sometimes from the delicate falsetto they are delivered in, though more frequently they come through clearly enough & I’m someone who needs to hear a song quite a few times before I can really actually hear the lyrics.
The current song he’s playing is a New Jack Swing track w/ a peppy drumbeat. The video being projected is a great example of what Beacon could have done, which is a screen flashing through w/ a grainy wash of close-up film images that would have been right at home in a mid-90s 120 Minutes clip. It could be a close up of a washed-out (both fabric & lens) flag waving in the wind or some colorful microscope slide from a 1960s school educational film.
HOLY HELL WHAT THE FUCK THERE’S A GUY ROLLING AROUND OVER HERE WITH A HITLER MUSTACHE, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING? And now there’s a girl walking around with a FUCKING BEDSHEET ON? With moons & stars & whatnot? AS IF IT WERE A RAIN PANCHO? The fuck, what? I’d say someone slipped something in my drink, but I haven’t had a damn drop of anything. Ok, back to the show…, No, but SRSLY, dude w/ the Hitler ‘stache? Let it go, man. Let it go. 200 years from now that’ll still be “too soon”.
The last song (before the encore, I’m assuming)4 is the heartbreakingly earnest song where he name-calls all the various people he’s lost & that he misses, Set It Right. It is agonizingly gorgeous & the highlight of the night by far.
The combination of downtempo with upbeat R & B flourishes that gave way to dark and deeply revealing lyrics full of doubt and longing made it rather inevitable that I’d pick up a copy of the new album. I was pleasantly surprised after opening the record there on the spot at the behest of the merch guy who was curious himself to see if I’d land one of the few limited edition colored records (keep eyes peeled for future post about how I was wrong about how awesome colored vinyl is…kinda like hating Disneyland as a kid but going back as an adult & having the Best. Time. Ever. It’ll make sense; I promise.) & I did! After the staff pushed the remaining stragglers of the crowd away upstairs, I found myself surprised to see that I was the only member of the press still kicking around with the band, since the after-show times can often offer the most revealing insights into a performer than the comparative vigilance required before a show.
I got to talk to Tom who showed up after I was done looking at the album. I wanted to ask him about the difference in crowd reaction to the stuff he’s been playing, since I imagine it’d vary pretty widely, but somehow it just didn’t seem like the time for that. I just wanted to bask in the glow of the experience, as if we had just watched a sunset together, even though it was pretty clear to me I was watching a sun rise. I mentioned lightly that I had enjoyed the show, my cavalier words belying how actually moved I was. He put his hand on my shoulder and delivered a “Thank you. It really means a lot to me that you’d say that.” with the gravity and gratitude that someone might offer you, had you gone out of your way to visit someone’s dying mother while they worked a double shift to make a rent check, only to have to woman expire during the visit & only you to comfort her and be present as she passed. There was no trace of irony in his delivery. This ability to be so vulnerable and present, while being relaxed and comfortable in one’s skin is what makes Tom Krell equally as compelling as a musician as he is a human.
How To Dress Well don’t just make fashionable music; they believe in it in a way that transforms it into something else; something simultaneously cathartic, expressionistic and lovingly crafted from looser cast-offs of a less-reflective past. It’s music that is the Feeling Person’s Thoughts, or the Thinking Person’s Feelings, all sparse and direct, without the vulgar showmanship of the virtuoso but with the attention to detail of a Swiss watchmaker.
Quite simply, if people loved things the way that How To Dress Well love the music they perform and are inspired by, I cannot say that cruelty would cease to exist, only that the cruelty found in this world would never be that born of carelessness.
1: Cool beans to anyone who loves metal; I’m not saying it’s inherently childish to like it, only that it’s what I was into when I was that age and my enthusiasm has only tapered off from there. Considerably.
2: Philosophical question: should I feel great shame that I’ve alluded to such a…um, work of art, or claim that I’ve preserved some form of dignity for having only seen it replicated in meme form rather than having exposed myself to the original thing itself? Or is that like bragging about having been to 271 Carrottop shows, when you don’t even know who he is, you just know that he’s universally derided & so find it daftly clever to feign sincere interest? Is it out Andy Kaufmanning Andy Kaufman? And if so, will Michael Stipe write a song about it? Inquiring minds…really should not want to know.
3: That said, it seems like recent radio, as per the 95.5 I’ve been listening to for my morning alarm or in my car when I forget my ipod, has been playing pop in a variety of styles, hearkening back to periods of time when you could hear a Nirvana song after a Dr. Dre song followed by a Spin Doctors track & then A Jewel one. *Not* defending the Spin Doctors, just saying if you can find a spot for them on your playlist, that’s a DAMN INCLUSIVE ONE.
I also listen to KNRK on my shower radio & have really been into M 83, The Joy Formidable and The Lumineers, which come as close to indie folk as I can normally stand, yet still are somehow so damn likable. There’s even been a hip-hop remix that’s been floating around on the pop station, which is a fascinating crossover to watch.
Speaking again of the pop station, of particular interest to me is how a song like Ed Sheeran’s dour, & darkly dreamy & yet somehow hopeful in the midst of such truly overwhelming sadness [though don’t watch the video, where there is no trace of that hope that’s nearly present in the song by itself; seriously, I’m not too cool to admit that I cried my way through the video: here it is should you chose to ignore me] could follow Ke$ha’s infectious & aware “Die Young” & then Flo-Rida’s Whistle Song or the have the gears suddenly be shifted by Alex Clare’s Too Close or Owl City’s “Good Time”, which if you can listen to and not suddenly & overwhelmingly feel full of some kind of blaring optimism, then you’re a better (worse?) Smiths fan than Toby. I tell you, that song is aural sunshine & should it be prescribed in lieu of Prozac, there’s a pharmaceutical company that’ll go bankrupt. It seems like an excitingly stylistically diverse time in popular music & I find it to be more enjoyable, more innocent & lively without naivete than it has been in a long time.
4: I was right! (Isn’t that just anyone’s favorite thing to say?)