Available on: Rough Trade LP
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.