Arbutus Records, the home of emerging Montreal electronic pop duo Majical Cloudz, describes the band’s sound as “strong vocals sitting on top of washes of white noise, filtered synths and sparse thuds.” At Glasslands in Brooklyn on Tuesday night, Devon Welsh, the group’s founding member (Matthew Otto joined earlier this year), let us know how sparse those thuds would be. “This song doesn’t have any drums,” he might say by way of preface, or, “This song’s kind of quiet,” or “This song has percussion.” This was unnecessary but charming, betraying some of the joy Welsh felt about being in Brooklyn and serving as the focal point of a four-set evening in a place where many independent acts get their first doses of exposure. Early on, he took the time during fadeouts to stand there in appreciation of the 60-or-so people there to see him. As the set drew to a close around 11, he asked Otto to speed along the songs’ long fadeouts because he wanted to squeeze in more songs.
The band’s video for new single “Turns Turns Turns.”
As for the drums, it was clear the people wanted beats: the handful of synth bass drops during the band’s set was met with “Woo!”s from an otherwise quiet, stick-in-the-mud audience (myself included). But Welsh doesn’t need much in the way of musical support, percussive or otherwise, and he appears to have realized this, as his work has recently begun to elevate his vocals in the mix and submerge everything else beneath them. His voice is deep, rich, flexible, and at times has an operatic force, even when coming out of Glasslands’ crummy system. Combined with Otto’s understated accompaniment, Welsh can sound like a number of different, strong male vocalists. Three came to mind last night: Richard Ashcroft, Morrissey and Stephin Merritt.
But certain inflections crept into the second half of Welsh’s performance (which did not include either of the band’s two new, Pitchfork-lauded singles, “Turns Turn Turns” and “What That Was”). He began to assert himself as a completely refreshing offering in a sea of understated, homegrown electronic music, and it happened some time around when the band breezed through this as-yet-unreleased song:
Those opening lyrics — “Sooner or later you’ll be dead” – echo Welsh’s chief preoccupations: mortality and love. His rendering of each state can be chillingly honest, and much of his writing about love sounds like it was written during the lowest (highest) point of a romance. He often sounds vulnerable and impatient: “How much do I have to love to grow?” In the dizzying “Silver Rings,” he repeats sadly, “Stay with me, silver rings.” In another song he addresses his lover with heartsick pleasantries like “Of course I do” and “I’d love to.” In “I Want To Warn You” he admonishes: “This is not a game / I love you.” In communicating these lyrics, Welsh sounds beautifully pained much of the time. He wedges in surprisingly high runs of notes, hiding some of his dexterity by crouching over the microphone, hiding his mouth from view, so you can only listen out for it.
About those singles: their absence may have confused members of the audience who know little more about Majical Cloudz’s music than what the blogs have so far pointed them to, but truthfully, what the band played last night was more exciting and more moving than the four-song Turns Turns Turns EP, which was released yesterday, the undeniable gorgeousness of “Turns Turns Turns” notwithstanding. These mysterious new songs, living for now mostly in jerky YouTube videos viewed by less than two hundred people, will likely make us wait a few more months (the band expects to release their debut full-length in March 2013), but that’s not such a bad thing, especially considering the band’s label. Arbutus has evolved from a series of shows in an illegal loft space in Montreal into one of the most exciting rosters around. Its founder, Sebastian Cowan, thinks big but works small and in-house. He calls Arbutus a family in which work “never feels like work.” The musicians support each other and feed off each other’s work. They collaborate. They make beautiful videos. There is a shared history between many of the people on and around the label, which only strengthens its output. Just as important, Cowan is a mentor, nurturing, coaching and serving as manager to many of his musicians.
Like his good friend and Arbutus labelmate Grimes, Welsh can and should use his voice purely as an instrument, a non-verbal feature of his music, but his lyrics are too good to be stirred into the cauldron of a vocal effects pedal, and anyway, that wouldn’t serve his purpose. Grimes has said her often-unintelligible lyrics are there to anchor her to the emotions behind her songs, reference points that she doesn’t think her audience necessarily needs to have. But Welsh chooses a different tack: he wants us to hear him, loud and clear, and his live performances prove that. Otto modestly lays out samples, embellishes with a Korg, and occasionally underscores Welsh’s voice with an effect or two, and that work is essential. But the star of this show is Welsh’s voice, which only shines brighter because it has so much to say, and so urgently.