I'm old enough and jaded enough re: music that 99.9% of all new artists on the scene over the last 10+ years have bored the ever-living stuffing out of me. Not so with Micachu and the Shapes. Mica Levi and her gang have put out three records so far-- two studio records and an album of, of all things, live-performance chamber-orchestra arrangements-- and all of them are utterly fantastic.
I've heard a great deal of experimental music in my time, and I have heard a lot of totally inappropriate and misleading adjectives applied to MatS' music-- "atonal," even "Beefheartian." What attracts me most to Mica's music is its immediacy. On the studio records, the songs are all solid but fragmented and distilled pop structures of nearly-classic bent. She knows exactly what she's doing as a creator of great melodic fragments and upbeat rock/pop riffs. While most of her stuff reveals a distinct classic-new-wave influence, heck, a song like "Holiday" would have instantly attracted the likes of Phil Spector 50 years ago.
This is what makes Micachu's material so accessible despite the sonic claptrap. Unlike so many experimental musicians, she starts with a solid, intensely stripped-down melodic / harmonic foundation. The finished product is then reconstructed / deconstructed with all manner of noises both digital and organic. It reminds me a lot of Prince's most successful experiments with stripping down funk arrangements to their barest elements.
The main difference: In the case of a song like Prince's "Kiss," your mind is left to fill in all the arrangement's empty spaces, and that's exactly what makes it work so well. In the case of so many of Micachu's songs, your mind is occupied trying to figure out what the song was "supposed to sound like" in the face of an onslaught of resampling and treated noises taking the expected elements' place... that's exactly what makes *Micachu's* music work so well.
This is why Micachu has got it going on, and has become my favorite new artist by far in the last few years. She can write a song that the average layperson can immediately hang their hat on, then turns it into genuine art by drastically / deconstructively cutting up the sonic surface without damaging the song's all-important innards. Unlike so many experimental musicians, she also clearly knows the value of simple structure and motivic economy, and recognizes the dangers of self-absorption and/or taking oneself far too seriously.
_Never_ clearly took a great deal of time and effort to create, but you have to listen to it carefully with a knowledgable ear to recognize the amount of effort and risk entailed. It seems completely spontaneous, wonderfully casual, and filled with absolutely brilliant life and sonic invention from end to end. _Jewellery_ seems a little more spontaneous and adventurous, but what _Never_ (barely) gives up on those fronts, it makes up in terms of much more accomplished songwriting and more carefully-thought-out album sequencing.
My main complaints about this record are audiophile-nerd in nature. I have a sneaking suspicion that Mica mixed this record with laptop speakers and iPod docks in mind-- not a bad idea in 2012, but the way she's gone about it needlessly punishes those of us who have even marginally better listening setups. This record is virtually all midrange and treble from start to end, with the individual sonic elements distorted and/or compressed to the point of unrelenting harshness on a revealing set of speakers or phones. I'm aware that's part of the fun, but a little more dynamic range and a bit more kick downstairs would have mitigated the unforgiving sound on this record on a proper full-range system. Go for the CD or files over the vinyl; _Never_ virtually checks every last box for "things that the vinyl medium doesn't handle well at all".
The thin-and-overcompressed mix is a real shame, because I'd really like to properly experience all of the crazy digital detail and impact that is in this music. And I hope that the next record finds her finally getting over the plastic vocal chorus effect she's so fond of (over)using both on this album and on _Chopped and Screwed_. I know she's doing it to make things fit better with her everything's-got-to-be-just-a-little-out-of-tune aesthetic, but it's unfortunately the aural equivalent of ODing on Paxil.
This is a must-hear record, along with _Jewellery_. I also love _Chopped and Screwed_, but it's potentially a much more difficult listen for those who haven't already spent a lot of time in the world of contemporary chamber music. (Still, it's hard to pick between the versions of "Low Dogg" on _Never_ and _Chopped_. No matter which version you go with, it's probably my single favorite song of the century so far.)
One last dumb thought: The cover of _Never_ looks very similar to the cover of Meat Beat Manifesto's classic 1990 record _99%_. Although she was a tiny tot when that album came out, I see some significant similarities between MBM's golden-age work and what Mica has ended up doing. Have to wonder if the similarities in cover art were coincidental. ...Probably.