On the Gleeful, Disarming Dissonance of Micachu & the Shapes

Enter the labyrinth with Mica Levi

Mica Levi, the 21-year-old proprietor of chaotically twee London trio Micachu & the Shapes, makes for an unlikely noise-rock heroine, which, of course, largely explains why she's currently hailed as such. Particularly right after South by Southwest—wherein thousands of fickle tastemakers migrate to Austin, Texas, and coolly regard thousands of aspiring hot-shit rock bands that inevitably blur indistinguishably into one another, while the tastemakers stand in front of one hot-shit rock band with their noses buried in their BlackBerrys/iPhones/official SXSW guidebooks so as to intricately plan which hot-shit rock band they'll go completely ignore next—anything that can break that fugue, any jarring note of audio/visual dissonance, is warmly welcomed and endlessly rhapsodized about. Mica's got plenty of both, dissonance and rhapsody, an unnatural racket with natural appeal.

It's all pretty unlikely, though. Onstage, she is diminutive, demure, and droll in the extreme, like a female British analogue to Michael Cera, sawing insouciantly on an undersized, beat-to-hell, apparently homemade guitar slung up almost to her neck. It's not immediately clear when the tuning stops and the next song itself begins. Often, she prefers to just bash it for awhile, in a jarring, steady rhythm—the first two tracks on her excellent half-crazed/full-length debut, Jewellry, begin this way, fed through radically different pedals and filters and sieves of unadulterated noise. This provides plenty of charisma, so that Mica herself doesn't necessarily have to. Onstage last Wednesday night at Piano's, the last of a three-night, three-venue post-SXSW run here, she limits her banter to calling out song titles—"This song's called 'Eat Your Heart,' " etc.—and immediately regrets deviating from this approach the one time she does.

Mica: "I got a new pedal

Vacuum cleaner not pictured, unfortunately
Rebecca Smeyne
Vacuum cleaner not pictured, unfortunately

today." [Pause.] "Never mind. I won't tell you about that."

Exuberant Crowd Member:

"I wanna know!"

Mica: "OK. I got a new pedal, but it's not as good as the old one, so."

Exuberant Crowd Member:

"Fuck that pedal!"

Mica: "Yeah. Fuck that pedal."

[Dissonance resumes.]

To this dissonance the two auxiliary Shapes contribute drums and synthesizer, respectively, conjuring either drone-heavy sci-fi nightmares or Tom Waits brawlin'-in-the-junkyard cacophony. The songs themselves are necessarily starker and more skeletal than on record: Produced by hot-shit electro-guru Matthew Herbert, Jewellry is a labyrinth of elegantly jagged blips and bleeps three people could only hope to vaguely approximate live, though they throw an impressive number of stabbing downstrokes, burping keyboard patches, and trash-can cymbals at the problem. It's a Headphone Record, certainly, luxuriating in, say, the milkshake-slurping percussive effect running through "Lips" or the vacuum cleaner that frequently interrupts the relatively unguarded lovelorn reverie of "Turn Me Well." (The vacuum cleaner evidently shows up onstage sometimes, but not this time. Very disappointed to have missed the vacuum cleaner.)

That unguarded romantic reverie is very relative, indeed—Mica's vocals are fairly calm, flat, reserved. (Her cohorts punch that up, too, with woo-hoo's and oi-oi-oi's, and at one point moaning ahhhhhhh in impressively atonal unison, as though the stunned Piano's audience was one giant tongue depressor.) Jewellry's dozen tracks average a couple minutes apiece and together add up to less than a half-hour, often collapsing entirely in mid-thought out of sheer boredom, or mischief, or hostility. Lots of distinctive, conflicting thoughts here, few of them complete. As a whole, at the onset, it's not particularly revealing: The only full sentence that resonates upon first (possibly fifth) listen is "No, I won't have sex 'cause of STDs," on the particularly scattered and skittish "Just in Case," a meditation on overcarefulness that feels like it might be hypothetical, though several declarations scattered throughout the record—"Love's all around but I don't want that"; "You squeezed my heart so tight tonight/You must return it before you leave"—suggest otherwise. (The single, pristine, ding! that rings out immediately after the word "heart," like an angelic bell or an incoming text message, is a showstopper.) But maybe not—either way, it'd take a pristine pair of noise-canceling headphones to suss out the truth here, though noise, in the end, is the whole point.

The drummer has suggested that Jewellry's follow-up will be titled Debris, which is actually kind of terrifying, in that they thought it'd be a better title for that record than this one, which has plenty of it. This is pop, technically, but the kind that has eaten and half-digested itself: The viciously swinging "Golden Phone" (whose sweet vocal harmonies are the most effective proof that all this chaos is carefully planned) and the stupendously raucous "Calculator" (which is constantly threatening to become "Tequila") emerge most intact, but the whole is impressively uncompromising. At such a young age, Mica's already showing tremendous depth: composing for the London Philharmonic, amassing a spaced-out mixtape with grime MCs. She has, in other words, the restlessness and short attention span of her audience. The other thing SXSW teaches you is how fleeting hot-shit designation from that fleet of fickle tastemakers can be, how we can fall in love one year and express complete indifference the next. Sometimes, the artist is entirely to blame for this. Sometimes not. In this case, should we not praise Debris as effulgently as Jewellry, I suspect it won't be Micachu's fault. Return her heart before you leave.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

 
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