Review Summary: Mica Levi and co. throw their weirdest and most wonderful shapes yet.
It’s been said that familiarity breeds contempt, and this much is true of London musician Mica Levi, best known for her work under the moniker Micachu. Following the release of her much-acclaimed debut Jewellery
in 2009, Levi found herself lapsing into the same set of barre chords while writing on guitar. Never one to shy away from experimentation, Levi and her backing band The Shapes – Raisa Khan and Marc Pell – found themselves creating entirely new instruments to create something in which familiarity simply couldn’t be bred.
This experiment lead to a collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra that has worked with everyone from John Cage to Aphex Twin. You could say that doing something out of the ordinary is more or less the Sinfonietta’s natural calling – and that would certainly explain Mica’s desire to peform with them. The result of this collaboration is Chopped and Screwed
, a live recording of the two groups performing the compositions in London last year. Interestingly, all applause was asked to be held until the very end of the set, a la any orchestra performance. Needless to say, however, this isn’t your average Beethoven revue.
While this release is not being officially recognised as the follow-up to Jewellery
, it is very much a worthy successor to it. This is a bold adventure through music, disregarding limits and conventions and returning to an almost primitive engagement with sounds where something as simple as noise becomes the most exciting aural prospect imaginable. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Chopped and Screwed
's soundscapes is taking the formality of something like a string section – typically associated with classical music – and immersing it in something as peculiar as this. Just as this is untested ground for Micachu and the Shapes, so too can we imagine it so for the Sinfonietta – not even Aphex Twin could have gotten quite as abstract as this.
The arrangements are nothing quite like what one would expect from clasically-trained musicians – Mica herself included – but, in a way, that’s exactly what makes it such an enthralling listen. The strings mimic sirens, screech, creak, wail and moan as they blend into scattered beats and the oft-distorted vocals of Levi. Needless to say, it’s all quite adventurous – and a very detailed listen that requires one’s utmost attention. Whereas Jewellery
presented a topsy-turvy look at pop music, Chopped and Screwed
shifts from most identifiable conventions and instead comes across as very much mood-based music. A sense of distance and paranoia lurks through opener “State of New York,” lucid ambience is at the core of “Medicine Drank” and a bleary-eyed sense of confusion is what defines “Not So Sure.” There is certainly no “Golden Phone” or “Turn Me Well” to be found amongst these songs – not that it’s even a short-term issue when one’s imagination is so caught by these darkly beautiful compositions.
Amongst the nine tracks, it’s “Everything” and “Low Dogg” that present themselves as the record’s highlights. The former is crank-turning baroque pop, revolving around fascinating exercises of polyrhythms where a hyperactive metronome click does little to keep in line a scratchy string section that feels as though it is sporadically jumping between 33 and 45RPM. The latter, interestingly enough, is arguably the most straightforward of the collaborations found on Chopped and Screwed
. In a way, this is why it works – not only does it display Levi’s graphic lyricism (“You twist my neck until I snap”) mixed into subtle accessibility, it presents a churning cello and tire-screech violins as viable hooks – instantly recognisable and at an earworm-like level of catchiness. How does it work? Chances are only Mica herself knows.
Chances are you’re not going to hear another album quite like this one in 2011. Just as heads were turned in with Jewellery, Micachu and the Shapes have once again defied expectations by not just pushing the boundaries, but acting as though they don’t exist. If you seek a challenging, exciting listen within modern music, look no further.