[21 May 2013]
Impersonator is at once an odd name for the debut by the Montreal-based Majical Cloudz. (To get the obvious out of the way, yes, the spelling is silly.) If one resorted to the same economy of words that so defines this LP, this duo would be best described as “direct”. Lead singer Devon Welsh—whose resemblance to Mark Strong is a little more than passing—has become well known for his on-stage presence, which elicits reactions ranging from the awed to the humored. When I saw Welsh and his Majical Cloudz compatriot Matthew Otto (on beats and electronics) perform with Autre Ne Veut earlier this year in Portland, the crowd responded more toward the extreme of that continuum: with fear. As Welsh scanned the audience slowly, his eyes locking on each attendee with the precision of a cruise missile, gazes were averted, stances were shuffled, and whispers were passed around the tiny crowd. Suddenly, Welsh wasn’t just performing music, it was as if he was having one-on-one conversations with everyone present. It was something the audience wasn’t expecting—and, it appeared, certainly not ready for. Few singers assert their presence in the way Welsh does: the discomfort the audience had came from the perception not that he was hiding something, but that he wasn’t hiding anything at all.
Majical Cloudz’ recent live shows are indicative of the blossoming in the duo’s style that forms the core of Impersonator. Whereas on past outings like the full-length II and the EP Turns Turns Turns Welsh’s voice was spliced and submerged amidst Otto’s electronics, but here he’s front and center, dominating the music with his often booming pipes. “Bugs don’t buzz when their time approaches,” he intones on the Baudelarian social observation of album highlight “Bugs Don’t Buzz”, “We’ll be just like the roaches, my love.” The juxtaposition between the quietness of the backing instrumentation and Welsh’s vocals is a basic one, but it never comes off as facile; in fact, the weakest songs on the record (“Turns Turns Turns” and the title track) are the ones where his voice is modified in some way. Majical Cloudz work best in the minimal arts, and with Impersonator they’ve made the confessional album for the age of austerity.
Welsh and Otto here mine a bevy of potent topic areas. The record’s sparest track, “This Is Magic”, recalls the nightmares of childhood to reflect on old haunts that haven’t shaken off. Lead single “Childhood’s End” uses a subdued and catchy beat to back the telling of a father being shot outside with his son in a store. These stories are where Impersonator packs its heaviest. As a result of this, one might be inclined to think of Otto’s role in Majical Cloudz’ music as nothing more than background noise or as a glorified karaoke machine, and it’s easy for one to be lured in by Welsh’s consummate singing. Otto’s presence, however, is anything but that—without his pad synths, beats, and sonic bleeps, Welsh’s vocals would be floating, without the proper context to ground his weighty words. Otto draws out one of the key balancing acts that occurs on this record, namely the tension between the introspective and the conversational. As with the duo’s live performances, Welsh sounds like he’s talking directly to the listener, but at the same time he is still processing these events. He himself recognizes his own inability to fully grasp his thoughts. “Bugs Don’t Buzz” opens with the intimidating, “The cheesiest songs all end with a smile / This won’t end with a smile, my love,” only later to hint otherwise: “The happiest songs all end with a smile / This might end with a smile, my love.”
In this way, Impersonator is an album of intriguing paradox. Its ingredients are so simple that it might have been made in a home or garage studio, but Majical Cloudz’ sound is so uniquely and deliberately crafted that it’s unlikely just anyone with ProTools could do the same. Welsh’s simple sentence-centric lyrics are nothing a budding writer couldn’t imitate, but his delivery is more akin to the terse yet resonant style of Ernest Hemingway. For whatever these songs may seem to be—remembrances of mourning, reflections on the underclass, or even a simple plea—there’s always a lingering sense of something else, an echo of a hidden power beneath the obvious. Welsh’s straightforwardness, despite the many things it communicates, is the impersonator: concealing a fact for every sliver of truth it reveals. “I’m a liar, I say I make music,” he confesses on the title track. One has to wonder, then, what else just might be going on.