Micachu & the Shapes, 'Never' (Rough Trade)

8
Never
Critical Mass
Release Date: July 24, 2012
Label: Rough Trade

by Jon Young

There's nothing new under the sun, which goes double for pop music, where even geniuses recycle fervently. But Britain's Mica Levi could fool you into believing otherwise. Now in her mid-twenties, the former childhood violinist and current leader of Micachu & the Shapes — co-starring keyboardist Raisa Kahn and drummer Dave Pell — exhibits a cheerful disregard for stylistic boundaries. On their previous work, the trio spanned electro-fueled minimalism and symphonic reveries, evoking everything from Björk and avant-garde composer Harry Partch to punk and grime. Such an eclectic methodology could lead to chaos, of course, but just as often it yields something surprisingly close to mainstream entertainment, albeit a vertigo-inducing Bizarro World version.

Thus, the trio's new album, Never, is a fleet, fizzy experience with a mixtape-like flow (Levi has created or co-created five of those, as well) and makes earlier Shapes music seem undercooked by comparison — always an encouraging sign for a developing artist. Both 2009's twisty Jewellery (produced by electronica eminence Matthew Herbert) and 2011's Chopped & Screwed (inspired by the cough syrup-influenced hip-hop of 1990s Houston and recorded live with the London Sinfonietta — how's that for worlds colliding?) generated enough possibilities for a dozen albums. Now, she crams it all into one delirious 35-minute package.

Never often suggests a mad scientist's weird contraption gone haywire, about to fly to pieces. Driven by clattering percussion and rhythms approaching warp speed, "Easy" and "Nowhere" bookend the proceedings with dizzying bursts of energy, drawing on a sonic arsenal which includes such oddities as the chu (a sort of homemade guitar) and a variety of found noises (check the vacuum cleaner). Nestled amid the murky mix, Levi's offhand singing has a breezy charm — in a brighter setting, she might pass for Lily Allen's less-poised younger sister.

If the lyrics occasionally feel like an afterthought, they're certainly more than placeholders, offering glimpses of lives in chaos or consumed by obsession. Even when literal meanings prove elusive, clear signs of trouble are everywhere. On "Nothing," a woozy ballad with guest vocals by Wesley Gonzalez of Let's Wrestle, she gently sketches the sad scene of a mother and son failing to connect, though Levi resists cheap sentiment, sighing, "Take your pity and your sympathy / 'Cos there is nothing wrong with me." The same denial of emotion informs "OK," where a friend's expression of concern — "Are you sure you're OK?" — is repeatedly stonewalled by the bland response, "Couldn't be better."

Elsewhere, bigger cracks appear in the façade. On the dreamy "Top Floor," Levi murmurs, "I want to jump into the white sky / But I never even try," followed by the even hazier "Fall," in which she notes, "I'll fall down very gradually / Hit the ground with no urgency." Is this an idle, harmless fantasy? "Low Dogg" implies otherwise, wondering, "How can I explain this panic in my brain?"

Those who aren't too alarmed by her musings, though, will get an exhilarating rush from the album's raucous, relentless barrage of sounds. Between the giddy ecstasy of "Heaven" (with the unsettling proclamation "It's been a pleasure / I'm heaven-bound") and the merry-go-round surge of "Sick," the breathless mania of the title cut and the eerie echo of Bernard Herrmann's Alfred Hitchcock scores on "Fall," it's easy to share her delight in simply making a cool racket. For all the thought and skill she puts into her art, including an Oscar-worthy portrayal of a soul on the brink, Mica Levi's greatest gift may be the ability to deliver a primal jolt.

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