Dekonstrukcionistički, atonalni, razigrani, duhoviti, koji-je-ovo-k... pop. Kolekcija instrumenata može uključivati usisavač, komad kreveta ili poklopac kante za smeće, a i sve "uobičajeno" zvuči kao da je izvađeno iz perilice. Frenetično, deset ideja nagurano je u svaku sekundu muzike, a opet ugodno i dječji bezazleno. Mica Levi pegla kaos liftom na parni pogon.
As an interview with Mica Levi in Saturday's Guide will tell you, Never is a record unlike any other. For one thing, it was made with instruments that included a contraption made of MDF called "the Chopper" and something that sounds like "a computer doing a complicated sum". A piece of bed was also involved somewhere along the way too.
It seem Micachu is happy to pick up the bubbly, experimental pop of her debut album Jewellery, which we declared the eighth best record of 2009. From the clattering DIY percussion of opening track Easy to the giddy chug of Heaven, Micachu demonstrates her way with new sounds is as playful as ever. What's more, she refuses to let her experimental side get in the way of some delightful pop melodies.
At this point, "experimental pop music" is hardly novel. The ongoing marriage of accessible songwriting and capital-A Artistry may very well be both a cause and a symptom of that which was once called indie rock's growing popularity. On a purely aesthetic level, Micachu and the Shapes could stand among this generation's most lauded arty pop purveyors. But with this, their second album proper (following last year's one-off collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, Chopped and Screwed), the band has doubled down on something genuinely different, defiantly cold, and intentionally withholding.
These qualities were certainly present on the band's 2009 debut, Jewellery, but they were tempered by much more discernibly "pop" moments. The album was chock full of strange noises and unconventional structures, but these were masterfully interwoven with catchy melodies and conventionally exhilarating rhythms. This time around, it's all but impossible to hear the band's cacophonous sonic treatments and counterintuitive structures as things that are being done to a batch of songs-- they are the songs. One can hardly picture the three humans in the band actually playing this music, and it's hard to tell a treated guitar from a vacuum cleaner or a drum kit from some clangorous but impossible-to-visualize percussive texture.
In keeping with the album's title, Never is uncompromising and direct. While both of Micachu's albums feel like the work of impossibly cool, perpetually unimpressed British art students, this attitude is the brilliant, bloodless core of Never. The whiffs of boredom and casual disdain that passed through Jewellery no longer read as a crack at style. In some ways, it's easier to approach Never as a single piece of music than as a collection of unrelated songs. There are no clear points of entry here, nothing that stands out quite as strongly as Jewellery's "Calculator" or "Wrong". Mica Levi's melodies are minimal and straightforward, but Never finds them constantly obfuscated and/or disrupted. Would-be memorable vocal lines are mumbled, manipulated, and cut off. Entire songs seem imperceptibly to slow down or lurch forward. This is decidedly uneasy listening, in an unerringly precise and purposeful way.
None of which is to say that Never is without nuance or subtlety. The theatrical call-and-response of "Ok" may be sincerely expressing the importance of directly communicating one's emotions, or dryly, brutally lampooning it. The most conventionally pretty segment of Never is a spare, 47-second set piece with flutes and bird sounds that concludes, "I want to jump into the white sky/ But I never try." It is extremely rare to hear music that is so clever, but so thoroughly disinterested in drawing attention to its own cleverness.
In the grand tradition of art that willfully denies conventional pleasures, Never has a bit of trouble fully realizing its unconventional ones. It is nearly impossible to get anything from Never stuck in your head; the album's ideas and execution are so closely intertwined that it practically ceases to exist when you aren't actually listening to it. It is a singular object forged from absence, dissonance, flat surfaces, and sharp edges-- a brave and tricky step down a path that terminates somewhere more elemental and holistic than "experimental pop music" or "catchy experimental music." - Matt LeMay
When Micachu and the Shapes arrived, back in, hell, I dunno… some time a few years back when everything felt better, they did so in a wave of promise and possibility. Mica Levi was quietly hailed as a gentle heroine, with homemade instruments and a ramshackle approach to her craft. ‘All hail Michachu’ they said ‘all hail Micachu, with her wayward ideas and her sideways look at life!’ and we did and then… nothing.
She went the same way as Dre. We forgot about Micachu. Her buddies, Speech Debelle and Ghostpoet with their slicker sounding, Mercury-flirting music inched further into the main and we picked them up like the shiny new toys they were and we played with them for a few weeks and… yeah, we forgot about Micachu.
Here’s why we were wrong to do that:
Micachu and the Shapes are fun. Their new album is fun. You need some fun in your life because 87 per cent of it sucks. It’s hard work, you’re skint and the world is collapsing around you, in a cataclysm of destruction, deception and terrible soap operas. From the opening second of the opening bars of the opening track, ‘Easy,’ this album is sodden with the stench of someone daring to enjoy themselves. A rattle of unlikely percussion bounces around the vague, bouyant structure of a song. “Just leave the rest for me / I’m easy to please,” she sings, as a thousand ideas rage behind her. It ends, after a minute and a half, with the sound of a hoover being switched off. You may never have realised how much fun a hoover sounds when it’s being switched off. It’s fun.
And that’s just the first track.
There are no templates. There’s a sense that Micachu’s songs aren’t written, but birthed; thrown at the wall like a Jackson Pollock painting; a collage of sound and ideas. Not as careless as that may sound, but rather: created with abandon and an utter disregard for your rules, Sir. She plays her thoughts out in shorthand, underlined with irreverence; the songs are conversational, shown best on ‘OK,’ with two voices circling around small-talk: “are you sure you’re OK? / couldn’t be better…” Bowing to no one, Micachu and the Shapes always just seem to be doing what sounds right and what feels right to them, rather than what they think people might be wanting, needing, or expecting. That’s a good thing.
Here’s the last reason:
On the track ‘Fall,’ when she utters the line “I hope my bones crack evenly…” it is utterly, utterly arresting. The line is almost mumbled: poetry, brushed under a rug of humility. Oh and on ‘Nothing,’ which comes straight after, over a lilting fairground beat, when she sings “we had everything to lose / so I stood on a cigarette / and decided we hadn’t finished yet,” well, talk about a perfect image. This time around, can well agree that it’s really not too much to ask that we don’t forget about Micachu and the Shapes? That we give her the same due care and attention as all those other London types? Thanks. - Hayley Avron "For years pop and rock thrived on a kind of energy and madness that predicted the sights and sounds of the future,” chuckles Paul Morley as he slips into fourth gear. He's been stuck in his cyber-car with his road buddy, Kylie Minogue, since 2005 as they whiz around the sights and sounds of a music-mapped city. They've been hurtling through the neon-lit streets of pop music's past for yonks: a turn-off to the 'Autobahn' on their left; a pileup behind them, caused by David Bowie crashing his ruddy car again; after the next roundabout, an exit to a Little Chef owned by Gary Numan. But now, in 2012, they're running out of gas. The small talk's run dry, Kylie's turning her nose up at Paul's bon mots, and all there is in the distance are ghastly billboards, scrawled in thick crayon with no room for improvisational spillage in-between the lines. A 20-foot high Jessie J stares sternly at them; a behemoth-like Justin Bieber looms ominously ahead. Time to slam it into reverse and retreat, pronto!
It would be a loathsomely snobbish folly, of course, to bemoan the popularity of mass-marketed pop music – just as it would be equally, wilfully dim to pretend that the likes of Rihanna, Lady Gaga et al haven't produced some corking singles. But what is worth griping about is the pervading mistrust of pop music that dares to be different: the eye-rolling dismissiveness at the adventurous, and the mistaking of avant-garde for being 'dull' and aspirations of art for being 'pretentious'.
Just look at the sniffing suspicion that, in some quarters, greeted Micachu and the Shapes' Mica Levi's collaboration with the London Sinfonietta orchestra for last year's Chopped And Screwed. Never mind that, in 2008's Jewellery, she was responsible for one of the finest compact-pop records in aeons; ignore that, lyrically, Chopped And Screwed revolved around the none-too-highbrow pastime of getting out of one's gourd. She teamed up with an orchestra to make a quasi-classical album! What unacceptably highfaluting hijinks!
Thankfully, what Never does is serve an almighty ace past any soul who thinks that intelligent pop music has to be bloody hard work, or that tickling the brain means you can't deliver a hearty and visceral slap to the chaps, too. Because for all of the complexity of the Shapes' latest – the clever-clever arrangements, the off-kilter percussion, the wonderfully weird hooks and so forth – 'Never' is just loads of fucking fun. Opening track 'Easy' sounds like a fairground manned by a dementedly grinning soul: a Through The Looking Glass-style thrill ride with bilious, wonky loops and Levi's punch-drunk drawl of "I'm so easy to please”. Elsewhere, the title-track's scratching, staccato twanging makes use of the Shapes' bizarre collection of homemade instruments, while 'Waste' comes off like Gyratory System squeezed through a mangle. All three are ambitious, odd, madcap; none are impenetrable or anything less than neuron-pleasingly catchy.
Rather than muddy its pop-factor, then, the Shapes' homemade ethic allows it to sparkle: just see the reworked version of 'Low Dogg', transformed from its cough-syrup hiccupping incarnation on Chopped And Screwed into a bouncing, school-yard taunt, or 'Holiday', with its eerie, snake-charming lilt. Mischievous misadventure runs amok throughout, such as on the comically seedy 'Glamour', with its snatches of, teasing gaudy phone conversations ("I'm actually half-naked doing modeling shit”) over a chewed-up bubblegum backdrop.
And, lest that sounds a little too erudite, behold the bangers! 'OK' bludgeons a skronk-heavy riff into submission as Levi has a split-personality discussion with herself ("Are you sure you're okay?/ Never been better”); 'You Know', meanwhile, is a sweetly moon-eyed declaration of affection, as guards are dropped ("I'm telling you this because I care / My feelings are out there”) over the giddiest of skipping, swinging beats. This is pop music, pure and simple: smarter, stranger than your average fare, no doubt, but don't confuse its oddness for inscrutable obtuseness. Someone furnish a courier with a copy, quick, and have them track down Paul and Kylie so they can stick it in the CD player: it might not save their journey, but it'll sure make it a lot more bearable. - Ben Hewitt You have to respect Mica Levi’s dedication to sheer atonality, like a child trying to see how long she can push two magnets together at their opposing ends before her hands get tired. Which is not to say that her music as Micachu is childlike, although it kind of is—in a good way. Her desire to make music so damn strange is childlike. But anyone can make a mess or a scrap heap. It takes a bright, instrument-inventing student who was once commissioned to write a piece for the London Philharmonic to make something that’s so carefully crafted to be the opposite of pop while still obeying its rules. Some of these rules include keeping it brief and having a sense of humor about it. The opening track of her first true album in three years prominently features the words “I’m easy to please.” Haha. A similar avant-gardist debuted in 2009, albeit more quietly: tUnE-yArDs. With Levi, Merrill Garbus shares a junkshop aesthetic, Beefheart-esque outsider chord progression and a strong, jagged sense of rhythm. But she traffics in big themes like sex and politics, universals that helped her win the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll with w h o k i l l last year. By contrast, Levi’s Never hints at what might’ve become of Garbus if she never left the basement. In 35 minutes, these 14 vignettes are less synth-noodley than on her debut Jewellry, and more percussive, like Tom Waits’ clattery recent output conceived as a no wave band. A power drill finishes off “Easy,” whereas “Waste” sounds banged to bits by trashcan lids. More drill-like harshness comes back up in the intentional, sheet metal-like awfulness that saws through “Holiday,” though these songlets are so short that the noise is cathartic like the best hardcore punk or Sonic Youth. Unlike tUnE-yArDs, references to the outside world remain obscure and mostly musical. The one-note hook on “OK,” one of only three tracks on Never that break the three-minute mark, is reminiscent of pushing a button in an elevator. Somehow the Pac-Man start music creeps backward into “You Know.”
The main glue on Never, and what elevates it slightly above Jewellry, is the low tone of everything. Nothing’s too high-register to disrupt or overly fancify, at least up until the final track “Nowhere,” and that’s a highlight. Slightly louder than the rest of the album, “Nowhere” is a buzzsaw punk song in the tradition of Kleenex/LiLiPut, just like St. Vincent’s Record Store Day single “Krokodil” earlier in the year, with squashed, cut-up horns on a chorus that actually sounds joyous. Other highlights like “Easy” and “OK” get in and get out like a breeze. An outsider-noise breeze album? Indie-rock’s making summer weird indeed. -
Skiffle-grime? skree-pop? Beefheart meets The Raincoats via Jurassic Park? No catch-all descriptor was adequate when it came to categorising Micachu And The Shapes’ debut, 2009′s Jewellery, a rare example in the new millennium of an almost completely reference-less music. Here we had a band pushing hard for the unprecedented, after a decade of garage rock, post-punk and ’80s synthpop. Whose mastermind, Mica Levi, was the real deal in an indie epidemic of forced eccentricity (Florence) and self-conscious quirkiness (freak-folk), right when music’s fringe seemed no longer the preserve of natural misfits – commandeered by Top Shop spiceboys and eager conformists. So with that in mind, is it musical sacrilege to suggest that, with Never’s albeit slight concessions to conventionality, that Levi has been improved?
On Jewellery, mayfly wisps of genre music would emerge and just as rapidly dissolve on impact with the indefinable jumble. In contrast, on Never the living percussive motes of found sound and layered chords, cut nine ways in post production, rally together to form the shaky-lensed but recognisable shape of a genre. Take opener, ‘Easy’. Instead of synths there’s eaten tape sounds on melody duties, and abrasive audio clips where drum fills might have once stood, and of course the ubiquitous tin-pan percussion. But the overall effect is straight-up nihilistic punk. The same can be said of ‘Nowhere’, which evolves from white noise to cutthroat guitar licks to a synth brass polka, coming off like Oneida meets Gyratory System. ‘Waste’ works like The Slits in no wave mode, whereas ‘Low Dogg’ loosely adheres to Sleigh Bells’ formula of glitched, gum-chewing noise-rock. ‘Holiday’ closely resembles Spectorish ’60s pop, only made from a busted wurlitzer and wood blocks, while ‘Heaven”s pogo-inducing thrum is heavily reliant on a surf rock template. That its chug-rythym is made entirely from pitch-shifted voices is immaterial. Elsewhere, ‘Nothing’ – possibly music’s strangest take on Terrence Davies-esque end-of-the-pier Britain – is nevertheless pretty traditional Brit doo wop, even if Mika’s surprisingly lustrous vocals quiver surreally over the usual mess of percussion.
Of course, you’re going to have to imagine the above with Black-Dice-go-skiffle electronics, chattering percussion, Mika’s nutter-mutter and a million little interspersions and hairpin transitions designed to throw you off kilter. While you’re at it, imagine it as the catchiest art-pop the Tate’s youngest ever musician-in-residence has hitherto turned in.
With 14 tracks in total, there is, however, ample opportunity for the East Londoners to go right off the deep end. ‘OK’ merges drone, a weirdo call-and-response refrain and boom-bap beats. ‘Never’, meanwhile, is a lost Jewellery track. Together they evoke that signature Micachu scene of a chaotic squat-punk hovel where the instruments come alive like the toys in Close Encounters. Maybe by using the skeletons of various genres The Shapes have provided the focal point to their music that it was missing before, or maybe we just need these easy touchstones to make sense of completely unprecedented music. Or maybe, just maybe, the genre ‘end’ renders the leftfield ‘means’ a futile gimmick. At any rate, retaining their distinctive, micro-fusionist, antic voice, Micachu and The Shapes have turned in a more accessible album. The pop is poppier, and the rock more secure with being so. It’s simply more fun, but the type of avant garde fun those cheeky situationists would surely have approved of. Unselfconscious and joyfully untrammelled, most importantly Never is charmingly weird – that quality so coveted by indie chancers everywhere.- John Calvert
Time hasn’t mellowed out or settled down Mica Levi, the mischievous experimentalist behind Micachu and the Shapes. Like the engaging, out-of-left-field debut Jewellery, Micachu’s latest, Never, channels Levi’s restless creative impulses, as it bursts at the seams with snippet-length songs that are overstuffed with off-the-wall hooks and oddball arrangements. If anything, the three-plus years between Jewellery and Never may have just revved up Levi’s overactive imagination; in the interim, the classically trained avant-pop prodigy has been collaborating with a wide range of cutting-edge artists on diverse projects, from a live recording with the chamber orchestra London Sinfonietta to making mixtapes with DJ/producer-type Kwes. Indeed, the new tricks she’s picked up seem to have only amped up her ADD-addled aesthetic, exemplified by the self-made instruments Levi’s invented to bring to life her demented, Frankenstein-like pop vision.
Certainly, Never doesn’t give any indication that Levi’s reckless eclecticism and incessant tinkering are going to slow down any time soon, though that comes as more of a mixed blessing this time around. While you could grade the precocious Jewellery on a curve for its audacity and ingenuity, Never isn’t as much of a revelation, since Levi still seems to be in that stage where she’s brimming over with good ideas and promising leads, but not yet at that point where she can fully develop them into complete, fleshed-out compositions on a consistent enough basis. Recalling Jewellery’s short-attention-span ditties, the opener “Easy” sets the tone for most of what follows on Never, as it gives you a little of everything you’d expect from Micachu without completely satisfying you, either. Sure, “Easy” offers up some catchy lines to chew on, and its head-bobbing clatter of ramshackle percussion, jacked-up synths, and what’s apparently the vroom of a vacuum cleaner can be thrilling. But it just feels like there’s too much nervous energy and wasted calories on “Easy”, as it spins into entropy rather than stretching itself out and turning into something more substantial. That’s also the impression you get from the next couple of tracks after “Easy”—the skronky, off-kilter title track and the jittery “Waste”—as they skitter by before you get a chance to absorb the neat bits of distorted guitar and found-sound rhythms on them.
That frenetic, frantic pace may be what defines Micachu’s signature aesthetic, but it’s also what too often keeps you from finding something to grab on to on Never, as Levi always seems to be on to her next brainstorm before she’s finished with the one you’re trying to process. With most of the tracks logging around the two-and-a-half-minute mark or less, it’s tough for many of them really sink in and stand out, no matter how inspired and clever elements of her music can be. The oscillating noise on the single “OK”, the blood-pressure-raising beats of “Heaven”, and the hyperactive sampling of “You Know” are viscerally appealing, but end up sounding somewhat interchangeable, and it’s not just because the songs all seem like they’re running in place, structurally speaking. What makes Never feel redundant at crucial points is the production, which makes everything come off overly busy and monotonous—paradoxically enough—at the same time. So whereas Jewellery incorporated and accentuated some organic elements like strummed acoustic instruments by giving them room to breathe, the way Never is rendered is too claustrophobic and vertiginous, rarely giving you a chance to find your bearings within the tightly packed soundscapes.
By contrast, it’s the moments when Levi tweaks the pace and tone that Never holds on to your attention. The loping “Sick” has a more laid-back air to it that goes with the flow of its dubby bass, while the immersive altered state of “Holiday” has a woozy, light-headed quality to it that matches the conceit of the track; when Levi delivers the chorus, “Cannot wait for my holiday / I’ve got my work cut out for me,” in her lazy Cockney drawl, she perfectly captures what it’s like to be on a mental vacation, whether you’re actually on holiday or not. Better yet, the M.I.A.-esque “Low Dogg” shows that Micachu can maintain an agitated, aggro approach without launching an all-out assault on your senses all the time, carving out some space between the red-alert blasts of bottom-heavy noise for her surprisingly fluid spoke-sung vocals.
Yet it’s not until the near the end of Never that Micachu finally stretches herself and innovates her already innovative art-scarred pop with the whacked-out waltz, “Nothing”. Although it’s hard to describe anything Micachu does as subtle, “Nothing” is the best example of how Levi can bowl you over without being so in your face, as the interplay between the lulling, druggy guitar and some wobbly lines from a homespun Theremin-like contraption build a complex but catchy melody. That “Nothing” appears as the album comes to a close makes Never seem like something of a missed opportunity, that it could’ve been more if only Micachu were as good at reining in her imagination as she is giving into it. Then again, it also goes to show that it’s never too late for a young talent like Levi to figure something new out, pushing herself and her art ahead even further by holding back just enough. - Arnold Pan
“Love’s all around, yeah, but I don’t want none / Give me that nonsense sound and I’ll be back,” sang Mica Levi on her debut with The Shapes back in 2009, marking the arrival of an absurdist talent. Her confounding otherness shows no signs of abating on this second LP.
Among other strings to her bow – she recorded an album, Chopped & Screwed, with the London Sinfonietta last year – London-based Levi is perhaps the only pop star to claim playing the vacuum cleaner as one of her accomplishments. Sure enough, said appliance features in opening track Easy – although the effect is more like being stuck inside a washing machine.
If that sounds like your cup of tea, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Waste pairs skiffly acoustic guitar with stroppy bursts of noise and dubbed-out vocals. The strung-out Heaven sounds like no-one’s idea of its title, except perhaps Mica’s own.
At this point we need hardly add that The Shapes’ MO is something of an acquired taste. Their avant-garde sensibility is paired with an apparently punk-inspired, throwaway presentational style – five of these 14 tracks clock in at under two minutes – that will infuriate some.
But order from chaos is the thing, and when Mica whips her arsenal of whirrs and scrapes into twisted approximations of pop songs, the results are pretty wild. Holiday, for example, is a woozy, melodic gem seemingly relayed through a tin can telephone.
OK sounds like Gary Numan on the verge of a whitey. “Are you sure you’re OK?” asks bandmate Raisa Khan on the track. “Couldn’t be better,” slurs Mica, before Raisa replies, “If you’re not, you should say.” Perhaps you had to be there.
Nothing’s relatively unmessed-with doo wop provides the album’s sweetest moment, before Nowhere’s frantic kiss-off shoves us out the door before we’ve even had chance to suss what the hell’s going on.
Whether or not Never is a record you’ll want to revisit that often is a moot point, but its ability to hit like a spring-mounted boxing glove to your peripheral vision is hardly in doubt. File under ‘WTF’. - Alex Denney
Chopped & Screwed (2011)
With their terrifically engaging 2009 deubt album, Jewellery, London-based Micachu and the Shapes superficially came off as a trio of gleefully amateurish kids bashing out a noisily tuneful brand of junkshop-pop, breaking rules because they didn't know any better. In truth, the group's lead singer and mastermind, Mica Levi, studied violin from a young age (her mother is a cellist) and received a classical indoctrination at music school. As you spend more time with Jewellery, you begin to realize that even its roughest-hewn, seemingly random elements carry such a concentrated punch that they could only be the product of an artist who was extremely focused and in control of her materials.
Given her history, it makes perfect sense that Levi would gravitate toward a project like Chopped & Screwed, a one-off collaboration (performed in May 2010 at Kings Place in London) between the Shapes and the London Sinfonietta, an orchestral ensemble made up of strings and woodwinds. It also makes sense, knowing the breadth of Levi's sonic interests and her hunger for experimentation, that sooner or later she'd bite off a bit more than she could readily chew. And so it is with Chopped & Screwed, which is conceptually fascinating and occasionally hits on something really compelling and fresh, but is also only sporadically engaging. Of course, even when things feel aimless, it's still intriguing to hear Levi and the other musicans working through their ideas.
As its title suggets, Chopped & Screwed draws inspiration from the Houston-born hip-hop practice of manipulating beats and slowing down tempos to mimic (and cultivate) a drugged, disoriented sensation in the listener. Don't expect to hear molasses-thick male voices drawling about candy paint over slow beat claps here, however. The Shapes' and Sinfonietta's kinship with the likes of DJ Screw is all about aiming for that same feel of dislocation. The way they go about attempting to achieve it is certainly creative-- basically, the ensemble saws or trills away on their instruments while the Shapes pluck and hammer at homemade stringed or percussive contraptions (the rotating doohickey Levi plays is particularly nifty), alternating between frantic and syrupy-slow tempos seemingly at a whim. Above the maelstrom, Levi slowly and lowly intones lyrics that are frequently incomprehensible.
More important are her melodies, which make "Everything" and "Low Dogg" the album's standouts, as Levi's arty appetites contend with the razor-sharp pop sense she displayed throughout Jewellery and that I hope she always retains. The likes of "Unlucky", "Fall", and "Not So Sure" aren't as immediately riveting but do the best job of replicating screw's woozy allure. That said, there's an awful lot of connective tissue here-- fairly lengthy passages (especially for such a short album) bridging the more immediate moments. If the performance had been longer, such sequences would be acceptable interludes. As it is, it feels like dead patches make up almost half of Chopped & Screwed. Shelve it next to the Knife's Tomorrow, in a Year as an effort that hearteningly shows an inspired artist staking out bold terrain, but one that only fitfully delivers the impact of the artist's previous, pop-focused work. - Joshua Love
The first sound on Micachu and the Shapes' debut album is an acoustic guitar, so what else is new. But what Mica Levi is playing isn't a chord anyone's heard before-- it's a dry, gnashingly dissonant cluster, and she's hammering away at it very intentionally. A few seconds into "Vulture", she's joined by the other two members of the band, drummer Marc Pell and keyboardist Raisa Khan, who act as if Levi's actually just playing some kind of giddy surf riff. By the time the song skids to a halt, less than three minutes later, it's made a few hairpin turns into and back out of grime/carousel-music fusion while Levi's been chanting and whooping lyrics about her inedibility in a proud, largely indecipherable LDN accent. On a first listening, it's maddening noise; by the fourth or so, it's as catchy as a jingle.
Jewellery is a chaotic record, and an enormous mess. It's also, pretty much, the freshest thing to come along so far in 2009. Levi belongs to the generation that's grown up with the total availability of every kind of music ever, and she wants to play it all at the same time as she's text-messaging, so it's a good thing that pop plus anything equals pop. She's got highbrow compositional bonafides ("influences" listed on the band's MySpace page: "harry partch, and all those other guys"); she's got some U.K. hip-hop cred (her mixtape Filthy Friends is even more of a pileup); she's a little bit rock'n'roll (the fuse that ignites the album's best song, "Calculator", is the guitar riff from "Tequila"). "Sweetheart" is a high-tech, neon-butterfly take on the hardcore punk two-step. At least one song prominently features a vacuum cleaner. Nothing stays in place for more than a few seconds, but very often her avant-gardist and party-time impulses snap together, as when the scrape-and-tweak that opens "Lips" abruptly congeals into a wiry bhangra groove. It's not clear, though, how much the insanely clever arrangements are the band's and how much they're producer Matthew Herbert's.
At the center of this cyclone of jujubes and sandpaper is Levi's tart, snaggy voice, which occasionally recalls Lora Logic's dizzy trill but more often ducks down into the mix and clings to no more than a couple of notes. (It's probably perverse to wonder how awesome it would be if the group collaborated with a really good R&B singer.) Levi is one of the most androgynous-sounding woman vocalists I've heard in years-- pitch her down a percent or two and she could pass for Mike Skinner-- but her persona isn't quite post-sex: while most of her rare intelligible lyrics concern the romantic conundrum, they're generally brushing it off metaphorically ("I could eat your heart", she yodels) or literally ("I won't have sex 'cause of S.T.D.s").
Mostly, though, Jewellery is a vehicle to show off the band's hoard of shiny new sounds-- although they haven't yet figured out how to sort out the gemstones they've got in abundance from their ice chips and broken glass. It's not a record built for staying power, despite the thrilling moments in almost every song. But its failures mostly have to do with idea-overload and short attention span, which are very promising problems to have on one's first album. Levi and her band sound more like the future than the past, at a moment when we desperately need some more future, and as much as I've come to dig this album's awkward, brash cacophony, I want to hear what they do next even more. - Douglas Wolk