Mica Levi's Tweaked Take on Pop
On Friday, Merrill Garbus's band tUnE-yArDs—whose spellbinding, genre-and-gender-bending album w h o k i l l won the most recent edition of the Voice's Pazz & Jop poll—will headline the cavernous Terminal 5. The midtown venue has definitely improved since opening a few years back, with the room's sound-swallowing properties being minimized and its crowds behaving more fun and less like thrashing extras in the hyper-aggro video for Nine Inch Nails' "Wish." And truth be told, even if it did still have those problems, Garbus would probably conquer them anyway. She's a skilled performer who knows how to draw crowds of all sizes into the palm of her hand. Her shows aren't rote executions of her recorded material as much as they are chances for communion, an opportunity for concertgoers to whoop and wail along with her as horns bleat.
Opening that show will be another act that takes the underlying concepts of pop—most importantly hooks, beats, and passion—and treats them like a twist tie: Micachu & the Shapes. The multi-instrumentalist-slash-composer-slash-mixtape auteur Mica Levi leads the London-based band; Friday's show will be its first in the States since 2010. In the interim, Levi has performed with the London Sinfonietta, released a mixtape with fellow Londoner Kwes (their second), and been given an artist-in-residence slot at the Southbank Centre, situated right on the Thames. The way she shifts not just between genres but between instruments and styles and idioms is a testament to her musical omnivorousness; she's what Questlove has referred to as "shuffle culture" made flesh, bingeing on any piece of music she can find so that she can remake it in her own image.
In July, Micachu & the Shapes will release Never (Rough Trade), their second studio album and follow-up to 2009's sharply drawn Jewellery. The first Micachu song I heard was "Lips," off Jewellery, and despite it not even being 90 seconds long, it struck my ear instantly. It was so arresting in part because of Levi's approach to her tools, which goes far beyond their ability to produce musical notes; her guitar playing on "Lips" is as much about showcasing the instrument's ability to sound like cats clawing at a closed-to-them door as it is about making the yowling notes that make up its melody. She treats her vocals similarly—she sing-talks the verses of "Lips" in a droning, monotonous alto, while the chorus consists of her getting up close and personal with the microphone and making a big smooching sound that's almost buried in the chaos surrounding it. The end effect is disorienting in the best way, a brief starburst that puts a microscope on the way the human touch is essential to making music.
Which isn't to say that Micachu's music is the audio-only equivalent of, say, the down-the-hatch video of Steven Tyler's vocals in action. (In that clip, the Aerosmith lead singer allowed a camera to burrow down his throat while he sang the lighter-waving power ballad "Dream On," letting the world see just how that song's yowls and pleas were physically manifested.) "Golden Phone," also from Jewellery, is a quickstepping pop song turned on its ear, with a hyperventilating intro leading into its singsong hook and a snappy, hip-shaking beat that might very well have been inspired by a 45 that was skipping at just the right stutter.
Never is similarly studded with up-close-and-personal takes on noise; some of the music summoned sounds completely otherworldly, which is probably attributable to the fact that Levi takes the idea of "making music" to its logical end of making instruments as well. (The "chu" appended to her name refers to a hammer-modified guitar; last year she created the Chopper, an instrument derived from a wooden CD rack.) "Are you sure you're OK? . . . If you're not, that's OK," goes the hook on "OK," which has a beat that manages to be simultaneously dreamy and methodical, thanks in part to its being punctuated by bleats that could have come from a malfunctioning phone. The downtempo "Low Dogg" snakes around a hook that sounds like someone stopping up a speaker at regular intervals, with Levi singing a descending vocal line in such a way that the whole thing meets M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" at some smoke-suffused middle point. (If the rumored sequel to Pineapple Express does come to pass, perhaps "Low Dogg" could soundtrack its trailer.) The musical bed of "Holiday" could have been summoned by a smeary watercolor of a hurdy-gurdy, but the chorus is pure sugar, with Levi's longing for a break being greeted by a joyous harmony—it's like the feelings of optimism and hope that get summoned by looking at a calendar with a circled-for-importance day. And "Nothing" is the Enchantment Under the Sea dance made almost painfully literal, a slow dance submerged under bubbly distortion that almost, but only almost, cloaks the hair-raisingly vulnerable lyrics.
I suspect that as I listen to Never more, I'll find more aural Easter eggs, each of which will be a testament to how much pleasure Levi and her bandmates derive from making music; the album is nervy and sharp-elbowed and brimming with vitality. Micachu & the Shapes do offer a more intimate reframing of pop than Garbus's huge-tent approach—there's a reason that the clip for "Lips" has Levi in extreme close-up for much of it—but it's one that demands a closer listen, especially underneath Terminal 5's high ceilings.
Micachu & the Shapes play Terminal 5 with tUnE-yArDs and Delicate Steve on June 1.
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