Review: How To Dress Well and Sky Ferreira at Schubas, Chicago 3/30/13

words by B. David Zarley | photos by Don Stankowski | Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Hazarding accusations of objectification — and the alienation of the audience, perhaps, post hoc, ergo propter hoc? — I must begin this recounting with a fact that may be considered so base as to scarcely require mentioning, but which is of such prime importance to the experience of those in attendance, and therefore, of great journalistic importance as well, that I would be remiss in my duties not to: Sky Ferreira is preternaturally pretty. This bears mentioning because beauty is, so oftentimes, control, and Ferreira and How To Dress Well put forth able proof of this fact in a double bill at Schuba’s.

The control beauty exerts comes not only from the well-known, easily ascertainable power of physical attraction — mind-clouding, inhibition-dropping, tongue-tying, eye-shackling, spirit-torturing sex appeal — but from the various nuances it can contain; such multifarious elegance demands from its observers a level of examination and comprehension that leaves little recourse but to focus the whole of one’s self upon it, and both Ferreira and How To Dress Well posses the byzantine diaphaneity required to command such attentions.

Ferreira smoldered on stage, shy and breathy in her banter and coquettish with the microphone. Her impossibly delicate features framed by a brilliant honeysuckle corona of hair, which laid across her face as she swiped or tossed it in numerous baroque structures, like blonde Brushstrokes in Flight, her slender, couture frame topped by eyes cold and glassy in an impossibly complimentary way, the crux of Ferreira’s beauty is the juxtaposition between this Kewpie doll appearance, porcelain and still, comely to the point of being ethereal, and her music.

Compositions as far afield as the smokey twang of “Ghost” and the electro-pop of “Lost In My Bedroom” demonstrated the various shades of Ferreira’s voice, a clear instrument capable of belting and whispering, as powerful as she seems dainty. Few pop stars would be capable of making the shift from the lilting “Sad Dream” or melancholic “Werewolf” to the dance inducing “You’re Not The One,” and perhaps none could do so as smoothly as Ferreira; her vocals played as well over heavy synthesizers as acoustic guitars, buzz saw distortion as ’80s-inspired breakbeats. Ferreira vamped through the aforementioned “Lost In My Bedroom,” practically wept on “Werewolf,” but these emotional shifts resided predominantly in voice alone; seemingly disconnected, that cold, pretty visage was barely caressed by the passions her vocals contained, an enthralling detachment.

Ferreira’s catalogue is small but impressive, and any misgivings of her fame being predicated solely on the aforementioned magnetism she emits on stage or in photo shoots was dispelled by her performance; that alluring countenance is merely a facet, just one aspect of an artist whose true strength lies in her finely crafted pop sensibilities.

Arresting as Ferreira was, she was not the most wrenchingly pulchritudinous aspect of the night — that honor would go to the voice of How To Dress Well (Tom Krell). Tall, pallid, and unadorned as a Doric column, Krell resembles a living Aubrey Beardsley portrait, his savagely pretty voice originating from within that elongated torso, capable of a rich, Jackson-esque high tenor and muscular falsetto or an impossibly ornate lilt so exquisite as to make one fear breathing too hard, lest it be scattered to the wind; it is a voice equally adept at inducing tears or nightmares.

Utilizing two microphones — one normal, the other seeming to disperse his voice across time and space — and live violin accompaniment from Aaron Read, Krell adeptly danced across a difficult soundscape of disassociation, miasmic and unnerving, drums and melodies existing more as Plutonian Universals than solid constructs, a fluid space through which Krell’s vocals traced delicate scalpel lines, enhanced by the visuals which streamed behind him, bathing his face in time-lapse pastel clouds.

Cuts like the somnambulistic, weeping “Cold Nites” and the loping/towering “Set It Right” washed across the audience like depression; even at its most amorphous, How To Dress Well never lacks in scope. Despite the often times odd structure and disjointed sound, one never loses the feeling that Krell is manipulating emotion itself, which is why, despite their esoteric nature, his pieces reverberate so fervently: it is admiration-cum-empathy.

Twice Krell put the focusing power of intricate beauty to devastating effect, stepping back from the microphones and letting his voice loose to flutter like ghostly bat wings above the hushed audience, silent testaments to the purest expression of power and control; the beauty of it was such as to make one want to fling themselves from the Southport Brown Line station.

B. David Zarley is a freelance writer based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter: @BDavidZarley.

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