Better Than: “Thinking about dying alone”
If you saw Majical Cloudz play before they signed to Matador in February, it probably felt like you were watching an awkwardly mesmerizing high school talent show performance. Perhaps you were used to the Devon Welsh who sits in the back of your history class, offering soft-spoken yet oddly well-formed theories about world politics only when asked, or the one who patiently demurred the requisite frog-dissection in biology junior year. He never spoke much, but it was generally understood that this was a guy without much interest in the opinions of others.
That being the case, Welsh was the last person you’d expect to take the stage with a mic and what could just as easily be a boom box (no offense to the other Majical Cloud, Matthew Otto), offering up disarmingly clear, curiously well-trained voice, with practically no electronic artifice behind it (save a little echo, for atmosphere). It was a weird, uncomfortable awakening, and oddly charming.
Now that the Montreal pair have gotten that major-indie validation, along with a fully formed debut album coming out later this month — well, not much has changed, actually, except that they seem to have fully committed to harnessing that exposed aesthetic. The duo blossomed in the back room of Maxwell’s last night with a deeply empathetic set that likely satisfied not only those who trekked out to Hoboken, but also those more A-crowd blog-combers who accidentally showed up too early for Youth Lagoon.
Beginning, naturally, by bargaining with board operator to turn down the stage lights, Welsh, ever military-grade in a white t-shirt tucked into black jeans, was visibly rattled when informed that they had two settings: on or off. Shielding his eyes with one hand, gripping his mic with the other, both shook slightly as he ventured into cuts from their haunting debut, Impersonator (out May 21), but in his voice, the nerves were nonexistent. Clear, even, rich, and utterly transfixing, Welsh’s voice — developed, again surprisingly, by
an upbringing fronting hardcore bands and singing in the chorus in school plays — is the money.
Still, a few minutes in, the stage was still too bright for Welsh. He borrowed a fan’s flashlight-enabled iPhone and had the lights shut off for a ghost-story delivery, but abandoned the trick after one song; with the lights raised again, he tried on one fan’s flat-brimmed hat, then another’s sunglasses, like the Goldilocks of mood lighting. Finally giving up, he had them all shut off, which worked just as well, or so it seemed, for his desired effect. Throughout, despite his fidgeting, he sought his audience’s eye contact
intensely, receiving the total, smartphone-free attention many acts these days demand – without even having to ask. (If the largely male crowd who’d come for the headliner hadn’t been fans of opener Majical Cloudz before, it surely seemed, by their surprised cheers and banter with Welsh between every song, as though they are now.)
The plaintive yawn of Welsh’s vocals never faltered, each vibrato landing precisely on time, each crescendo resonating powerfully; by the set’s climax, the penultimate “Silver Rings,” though, Welsh had torn through his control and let the performance take its own reins. Repeating the song’s centerpiece phrase “I don’t think about dying alone” with greater and greater abandon, he rasped like a despairing soul singer, Otto following suit by distorting a few measures of looping. It was a well-rehearsed set that loosened its grip at just the right moment for maximum emotional release; when someone eventually
gives Welsh and Otto strings and percussion sections, Antony Hegarty ought to watch his back.
Conversely, where Majical Cloudz relishes empty space and simplicity, headliner Youth Lagoon attempts to drown both out. “The whole concept of having something really in-your-face that you’re forced to listen to is beautiful,” he once told an interviewer. “Music should be an event.” That approach, while not without merit or place, seemed gaudy, then ultimately lackluster, when prefaced with Welsh’s anxiety-stricken confessionals. There’s nothing unsavory or even boring about Boise-an Trevor Powers and his touring band’s wall of catchy, electronic piano-pop, but their flood of excessive, comparatively dispassionate jams and reedy-to-the-extreme vocals shimmered away as soon as their rainbow light show faded; even the rabidly howling, drink-spilling crowd seemed apathetic about the band’s lack of encore. There was no coming back from the first round.
The two acts claim similar identities in the uncomfortable yet eloquently emotional outsider, which makes the tour’s pairing understandable, but only in the sense that an artist as young as Majical Cloudz is supposed to cut its teeth with an opening slot before earning its headlining privileges, and likewise, a (perhaps overly) praised act like Youth Lagoon requires a promising opening band like Majical Cloudz to legitimize its headlining turn. Really, both could be playing their own shows, and if the acts’ order is reversed on a bill in 2014, no one who didn’t see this tour will be the wiser.
Critical Bias: I want to do karaoke with Devon Welsh. Also, the “Devon bias.”
Random Notebook Dump: Betting this Youth Lagoon crowd was really into Dave Matthews Band before MGMT started getting airplay
Majical Cloudz perform later this month (5.21) at Glasslands. Tickets here.