This Micachu and the Shapes article was written by Alistair Ryder, a GIGsoup contributor
Although she is best known for being the front woman of Micachu and the Shapes, whose avant garde deconstructions of the simple pop song rarely extend beyond two minutes, Mica Levi has all the hallmarks of a music classicist. When she was only 21 years old she was commissioned to write a piece to be performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whilst in 2013 she supplied the score to director Jonathan Glazer’s experimental sci-fi movie ‘Under the Skin’- a score which caused a minor outcry when it failed to be nominated for an Oscar (it was nominated for a Bafta however). Yet with each solo detour in-between albums with the shapes, the band always reconvenes with something less attractive than before.
On ‘Good Sad Happy Bad’, Micachu and the Shapes rush through thirteen songs in little over half an hour, with not a single one lingering in the memory – it is something of a problem when they remain unmemorable after excessive repeat listens. Experimentalism has always been their forte, but the care and attention that went to their previous releases (and on Levi’s uncompromising orchestral work) is practically absent, leaving a thirty minute, tuneless dirge in the place where an album should be. Whereas previous releases have seen them utilise instruments including vacuum cleaners and objects they found on the street, here the songs appear to be recorded solely using traditional (by their standards at least) instrumentation. Yet with inspiration for the LP coming from a jam session that drummer Mark Pell had, the songs don’t feel thought through, instead feeling like they were recorded in one take during a jam session, then thrown to one side, never to be improved upon. Jam sessions are enormously fun if you are one of the musicians taking part- for the casual listener it sounds like the sort of music that should be programmed directly to prisoner of war camps on full volume. Here, Micachu and the Shapes do nothing to alter the bad reputation of the jam session- a track like Unity, with multi-track screeching vocals pestering throughout, plays out like a parody of experimental music as a whole.
There are no good songs here as they are all ill thought through; but when you are treated to a brief snippet of something that actually sounds like music, such as the 102 second, obvious-demo ‘Peach’, it is actually soothing. There is nothing wrong with making music that challenges the listener (after all, Mica Levi has managed it effortlessly before), but there is something wrong about releasing an album that feels like a combination of terrible jam sessions and first-take demos. Lyricism has never been Levi’s strong point, but only now when coupled with the uninspiring dirge of the songs on ‘Good Sad Happy Bad’ is it becoming a problem. Opening track ‘Sad’ has Levi ask us “why I feel sad?” repeatedly over a post-punk instrumental that even Sleaford Mods would turn down for being a touch too simplistic instrumentally. Then on Thinking It, Levi’s casual approach to lyricism reaches a new nadir, as she narrates a spoken word, 96 second song about going for a jog that feels like a voice memo taken from her phone overdubbed onto a particularly uninspired instrumental. For a band who pride themselves on being innovative, the fact the music repeatedly reminded me of Sleaford Mods, a band who produce music so simplistic they can have a beer on stage instead of play it live, is problematic.
For a musician of Levi’s talent, this was probably the equivalent of “kicking back” after the long and arduous process of scoring a major art house movie; its a shame that it didn’t remain a jam session, as releasing it as the band’s third studio album just suggests that they favour avant-garde experimentalism for the sake of it, as opposed to creating something innovative with these off-beat elements.
‘Good Sad Happy Bad’ is out now on Rough Trade