On Cloudz Nein

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The “Nein” reference in the title was just for the rhyme and not because this guy looks like he might be a member of the Third Reich.

I’m terribly remiss. Having just written a comprehensive list recapping my favorite music of the year, becoming the foremost music review of 2013 in some circles (my own), I had a stark realization that there was one album I’d forgotten. A band called Majical Cloudz put out a record earlier this year called Impersonator, which, for lack of a more original phrase, was in fact majical. This group crafts songs that are extraordinarily basic, musically. But the simplicity is what’s really artful about their songs. Each deep, bass-heavy organ chord smacks you in the gut if you’re not careful.

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But as elegantly stripped down as their arrangements are, the emotional brunt of Majical Cloudz comes from Devon Welsh’s vocals. Welsh’s voice just has this beautiful dichotomy of someone who seems remarkably steady and approachable but still wrought with some dark, secret past. His voice carries the songs, but yet he deftly resists going too baroque during his singing. Welsh keeps everything grounded and intact without drifting too far into the “cloudz”. I actually was able to see Majical Cloudz perform live this year and it was a rather refreshing. Welsh has such a charming and naturally funny schtick on stage. It’s certainly off beat but it was clear that the band was not self-righteous or self-important in any way, even with the “serious” nature of their music . And the same goes for their lyrical content; The words could very easily have crossed over to the territory of mawkish, ornate or flowery but Majical Cloudz keep everything grounded and intact for the sake of creating an immediate, relatable story. I know “immediacy” is a buzz word that I keep flinging around, but it really does apply in this case. Welsh has much more tact and discretion than someone like, say, Florence and the Machine who has a band as a sloppy excuse to make songs when those songs are so overpowered and strong-armed by her vocals. The vocals in Majical Cloudz still respect the music even if Welsh’s singing is certainly the focus and the strongest point.

Majical Cloudz have made one of the best albums of the year. They’re able to make music that’s fiercely emotional while still sounding effortless, un-pretentious and downright pretty. Hat’s off, gentlemen!

Album Review: Ducktails — Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics

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Well, it’s that time of year again…spring is approaching. Sort of. In spite of the fact that most of the country is still getting hit with torrential rain storms and cold fronts, Ducktails is ushering us into the warm glow of a new season. On Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics, the foggy, low-fi haze of Landscapes has burned off. In many ways, Arcade is the exact opposite of its predecessor: Landscapes was the boardwalk at dusk, it was west coast beachy, it was sparse, spacey and twinkly. Arcade travels east to the Hamptons in the sun. It’s riding bikes along the lake, it’s white sweaters and Keds. On the surface, this record is more full-bodied, more dynamic and more fun than anything the band has done. There’s just one problem: with a brighter, more traditional songwriting style, Ducktails has lost the beautiful, atmospheric ambience that made it great.­

After the release of Landscapes, the Mirror Image EP seemed to be a good indication of where their sound was going; Ducktails found itself a bit stronger and more confident, without sacrificing the whimsy and dreamy. On “Apple Walk”, the band found itself hitting with more force, but the light, spacey strums of the guitar created an aura around the song. For as “sunny” as the song was, it was still imbued with emotion. It felt like a road trip through the countryside. It flowed, it had feeling, it was evocative. The band was still letting the songs wander and drift through different sonic spaces. The sound moved and turns like a sine wave; keeping a constant rhythm and pattern, but still drifting in and out freely. On Arcade, the band loses this sense of freedom.

With this new release, the music has a much too much structure for its own good. The overall template is the same, but there’s something missing. Nothing wanders, nothing drifts, that sense of nostalgia that once pervaded in the songs seems dulled. Because the hazy atmosphere of Landscapes is gone, the sound on Arcade seems dry and over-regimented. There doesn’t quite feel like there’s the same level of magic. For all the glistering, effervescent flourishes Landscapes had, Arcade feels uninspired by comparison. The beats are over-structured, the light pluck of the acoustic guitar feels neat and orderly, but nothing transcends. Without the moody ambience, Ducktails sounds too trapped by their own sound.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very fun record. From the first note, Ducktails is able to do what they do very well and that is conjure an image. When you hear this music, you think of a time, a place, and a circumstance. You can taste the saltwater from the beach. You feel the sea breeze. It’s not to say that this music is completely non-emotive, but after these songs are done, nothing lingers. It doesn’t leave the listener with feeling, but feels more like a fleeting visit that is staunched too soon.

The album, however, has one key track: “Killing the Vibe”. This song has the pizzazz and the sense of youth that the band seems to flourish on, here. This is the perfect anthem for Spring and, eventually, Summer. The track exists in its own little world. As if you’ve pushed off your raft into the lake and are enjoying a cocktail with your closest friend. When Mondanile asks us “can’t you just sit a while?/and try your hardest to smile?”, we have no choice but to acquiesce. The simple, light guitar riff and the lively snap of the tambourine entice us to join that party. It’s as if all sense of responsibility and obligation are left behind in this track.

So, that being said, there is nothing wrong with this album per se. It’s lovely. In fact, it’s delightful. But being delightful is not the same as being memorable. Ducktails have ditched whatever magical essence they used to possess in this record. Arcade is able to stay afloat with its levity and sense of charm, but doesn’t echo with much emotional resonance. And any sense of sonic experimentation is virtually gone here. But, while this might not bode terribly well for Ducktails, it’ll do just fine for this Spring…so pour yourself a nice cold dink and enjoy the sunshine. And just try not to kill the vibe.