Majical Cloudz - Impersonator

You never, as a music dork, stop learning this lesson, but the truth behind it stands: It’s always, always a bad idea to dismiss an artist based on a terrible name. That rule is right up there with “horrendous rappers get better all the time, so stop believing it can’t happen,” and we break the rule just as often as that one. Case in point: Majical Cloudz. And, I mean, holy gods what an awful name. It’s name that conjures Trapper Keeper designs and rap-metal fake-toughness (that Z!) at the same damn time, and it makes the group seem, immediately, like a halfassed joke, like the sort of band whose music videos consist entirely of floating psychedelic CGI landscapes. And it didn’t help that, up until now, the only things that most of us knew about them were that they were from Montreal and that they were friends with Grimes; Grimes is turning into a pure force of cultural badassery, but she can still align herself with some wack shit. At SXSW, I didn’t just skip multiple chances to see Majical Cloudz live; I actually made the “pssh” noise out loud when presented with the opportunity. This was stupid. This was a mistake on par with high-school me hating on Daft Punk because they had “punk” in their name but weren’t actually punk. As their new album Impersonator makes crystal-clear; Majical Cloudz don’t just make good music; they make the sort of good music that creeps its way into your soul and stays there. They are not a thing to be dismissed.

Majical Cloudz, as you’ve probably learned by now, don’t make the nostalgic hypercolor neon synthpop that their name would seem to imply. Rather, they make stark and unflinching music that stares hard at uncertainty and inner weakness, that throws itself all the way into the stuff without ever attempting to come up with an answer to it. And even though there are two people in the group, it’s solitary and obsessive music. The focus is squarely on frontman Devon Welsh, who started Majical Cloudz off as a solo project and whose voice is the first thing you notice when you first hear Impersonator. It’s thanks to Welsh that Impersonator belongs to a distinguished lineage of albums from tuba-voiced loners howling into the abyss, sounding tough and robust but helpless to make sense of the existential threats that surround them: Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Springsteen’s Nebraska, the self-titled Suicide album. Welsh’s words are never about specificity. They’re nebulous floating bad-faith meditations, and they ask big questions. Like: Do the things I do matter at all? Or: Are there things out there in the dark, waiting to destroy me? The title track, which opens the album, is about how Welsh feels like a fraud when he sings, how he worries whether the song he’s singing justifies its own existence, or his existence. His words are stern but open-ended, and sometimes they offer small slithers of hope. Mostly, though, Welsh uses precise strokes, and minimal wording, to present himself as a guy who can’t get out of his own head. “I feel just like a kid,” he sings on “This Is Magic.” “I see monsters standing over my bed. And then they fall in.”

Welsh has a rich and warm voice, a professorial holler than never leaves itself vulnerable to easy comparison. He’s a great singer, but I’m not exactly sure he can carry a tune. It doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t need to. Majical Cloudz songs don’t follow any structure beyond simple repetition, and even that gets jerked around and varied. So Welsh isn’t tasked with delivering verses and choruses; instead, he gets to let that barrel-chested moan wander around in the vast chasms of Matthew Otto’s music. It wasn’t until I saw the lyrics actually written down that I realized that the staggering “Silver Rings” only had three phrases, repeated over and over: “Silver rings / Stay with me / I don’t think about dying alone” — the implication of that last line, of course, being that he thinks about dying alone all the time but that he tries to put up a brave front. Welsh starts out conversational, delivering those words with minimal affect, but by the end he’s absolutely howling them, stretching them into pretzels, wearing his throat bloody on them. And by the time he’s done with them, all those little phrases contain volumes of feeling that he, and we, can’t quite access even though we know they’re there. And on the final track “Notebook,” Welsh starts things out this way: “Hey man, sooner or later you’ll be dead / I want you to know I’ve got respect.” And somehow, that’s comforting.

The album’s comforts mostly come from Otto, whose backing tracks are built on loops but which always sound rich and full and resonant rather than thin and synthy. We hear pianos, violins, organs, ghost choirs. And even if we don’t know what’s real and what’s an electronic facsimile, it all sounds organic enough that it doesn’t matter. It’s a warm backing thrum, one that never pulls attention away from Welsh’s voice or his words. But if someone were to release an instrumental version of Impersonator, it would be a pretty incredible ambient album, one full of the sorts of hums and tones and crackles that make your everyday activities sound way more epic and meaningful as they’re playing on headphones. “Impersonator” rests on a screwed-up backwards vocal loop and a churchy organ that blur their way into the background the instant Welsh opens his mouth. “Childhood’s End” has shivery heartbeat-thumps and eerie keyboard float worthy of Mezzanine-era Massive Attack, as well as a cello that reminds me of the Nirvana Unplugged album. “Mister” is practically the gothic cousin to a Postal Service track, and I mean that in the best possible way. In Otto, Welsh has found a partner who’s brought out the quiet beauty of his disquieting ideas. On Impersonator, they make a truly potent team. If you’re still ignoring them because of that name, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.

Impersonator is out now on Matador.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Daft Punk’s stunningly lush disco nostalgia trip Random Access Memories.
• The National’s heavy-hearted orchestral romp Trouble Will Find Me.
• The excellently vibed-out streetlight-streaked Itaians Do It Better compilation After Dark 2.
• French Montana’s major-label A-list rap-star move Excuse My French.
• Dirty Beaches’ intense, darkly sprawling double album Drifters/Love Is The Devil.
• Man Or Astro-Man?’s reunion effort Defcon 5…4…3…2…1.
• Club 8′s Scandinavian Italo shimmer Above The City.
• Japanter’s artily fuzzy Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart.
• The reactivated Saturday Looks Good To Me’s big return One Kiss Ends It All.
• Laural Halo’s forbidding mutated-house EP Behind The Green Door.

Comments (19)
  1. Album of the Week is turning into Countdown these days

  2. I haven’t listened to Majical Cloudz (I plan to) but I actually kind of like the name.

    So is this an outright AOTW or just AOTW by default b/c Daft Punk already got a write up? I kinda skimmed the article so I apologize if I missed the reference.

    • Yeah, exactly. If something was already a Premature Eval, it’s not up for AOTW contention. Daft Punk would’ve won, but it would be closer than you think.

      • They beat out The National, everyone loves them right? Every week seems to be stacked these days. AOTW by default is still pretty damn good.

      • But I can still remember that Shields and good kid, m.a.a.d. city had become last year’s AOTW as well in spite of their Premature Evals.

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  4. Count me as one of the guilty, as I skipped the chance to see them for free 2 weeks ago when they opened for Youth Lagoon. Ah well…

  5. So far I’ve been underwhelmed by the album but I think it’s because on the surface none of the other songs seem to come anywhere close to the hauntingly beautiful “Bugs Don’t Buzz”, to me the song of the year so far. My brain also only has time for one grower at a time and that is currently occupied by Trouble Will Find Me. Listening to Random Access Memories is also making it difficult to want to listen to dark, brooding music.

  6. Childhood’s End man. No song so soul-crushing should be that catchy.

  7. I really enjoyed this album, and that was a great write-up.

    Also, this seems like a decent enough place to start this conversation (since Tom mentioned that Daft Punk would’ve earned “Album of the Week” honors if it were eligible), but on the topic of The Robots: Did some sort of Zeitgeist-y change happen this weekend with respect to people’s opinion on Random Access Memories?

    The Internet conversation has seemingly turned from a general feeling of disappointment to glowing — or at least growing — praise. In general, I was initially quite surprised by the gulf between the fan reaction (“meh” to downright negative) to the album and the critical assessment (quite positive) of the album, and I was curious to see which viewpoint would win out in the months and years ahead. Of course, I should’ve known that in Internet time, “months and years” would turn into one week, and it looks to have already been decided: The fan reaction is moving closer to the critical perception, and not the other way around (your profession has been validated, music critics!).

    Is it survivorship bias? People who like the album keep commenting while the people who didn’t moved on to something else? Has it “grown” on people? I am legitimately quite curious.

    Also: Please note that I am hating on Random Access Memories at all (though I would’ve named “Trouble Will Find Me” AOTW). I called RAM “pretty good” in the Premature Evaluation and I stand by that hard-hitting assessment; however, it’s Tuesday and I am bored.

    In any case, just please tell me that the change isn’t related to the Pitchfork review…

  8. A couple of huge, long-awaited albums due out today, and then After Dark 2 comes out of nowhere and trumps them all. What an incredibly rich and joyous album.

    Anyways, can’t wait to hear Impersonator if it was good enough to beat After Dark 2 for AOTW

  9. I originally caught Magical Clouds open up fro Grimes in Toronto, just after she was recovering from the strain of SXSW which boosted her profile. I remember thinking that there was something very genuine about their performance and that Devon Walsh’s De Niro Taxi Driver meets Ian Curtis presence was rather demanding. It’s been really encouraging to see them progress since then, though I must admit I feel like if he were to have a typical three piece set up backing him the songs would sound even stronger, still I appreciate that’s not what they’re going for and it’s gripping nonetheless.

  10. Majical Cloudz is good at what it does, but that’s not really my thing.

  11. I can’t be the only one who thinks he sounds like the guy from Diamond Rings, but I never see that.

    • Have you ever heard Baby Dayliner? You’ll be in for a surprise there. So similar but with different music. Anyway, I love Majical Cloudz; the album rules.

      • Holy shit, thanks! I’d never heard of Baby Dayliner, but I instantly love them/him. I guess I’m a sucker for nearly self-parodic over-emotive singing. That’s what you get for being a Morrissey / Scott Walker / Jarvis Cocker die hard, I guess. And yes: Majical Cloudz is *amazing* — Impersonator is feeling like my album of the year, and I adore the new National and Daft Punk albums. And maybe it would’ve made more sense to say that the Diamond Rings sounds like Welsh, combined with the skinny guy from They Might Be Giants circa “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” The singer from Merchandise fits into all of this, too….

        But yeah: Baby Dayliner!

  12. Knew this would be your pick and I spose we need to accept this as the right choice even if the two other elephants in the room are so good that we’ll be referencing back to this exact date when we wind down and discuss albums of the year.

    I mentioned earlier that Majical Cloudz comes off in a similar fashion that Perfume Genius’ albums exude…most of the emotion is strongest within the negative spaces.

    And, I cannot leave without mention of RAM. I have now logged in 5-7 listens of this thing and realize each time I do that this thing is simply 10 years ahead of its time while 35 years behind, simultaneously. It’s a mind blowing listen. Its like Girls Father, Son Holy Ghost captured with their album by being a collection of a whole bunch of great songs from years ago that you know so well yet cannot entirely put your finger on.

  13. Nope. Sorry Stereogum. But it’s RAM for sure. For me at least! Listened to the stream about 20 times, now I have the album on repeat at home and in my car. Good God it’s great.

    PERFECT start to the Summer.

    (Majikal Cloudz great too yes yes).

  14. All I can think of is the Headphones (2005) !!! – Headphones does it better in my opinion

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