Micachu’s 2009 debut Jewellery was an indisputably avant-garde record, bridging formerly sequestered genres in a global experiment of soundcraft. But it had a shining, populist core, built from sticky hooks and an idiosyncratic knack for melody. It made it an easy album for dilettentes, but for the pop-minded listener too; not chaotic enough to grate, and otherworldly enough to keep interested piqued, Mica Levi found herself on a number of year-end lists.
So it’s a tad curious that she’s decided to follow with something like Chopped & Screwed, a stop-gap sort of record that puts away almost all of the pop in favour of a much more aloof sound that embraces drone, noise and other theory based music. Recorded live with the help of the London Sinfonietta, the record proves her audacious spirit, but might turn off her more reserved followers.
One thing that remains certain is that Micachu can create some truly unique sounds. Given its performance nature, Chopped & Screwed is linked as a single piece, and her musical ideas are given an added surge of spontaneous energy. The most notable comes towards the end, after the sedate Medicine Drank (get it?) a huge, bone-rattling cello swell takes full command of Low Dogg. It almost sounds like a dubstep rumble transcribed to acoustic instruments. Other less explosive moments are similarly impressive; the hollow drum-taps work well with Levi’s worn vocals on Everything, which is the closest the record gets to the fractured pop she originally became renowned for, and Fall’s queasy strings are delightfully unsettling. But Chopped & Screwed is definitely meant to be taken as a piece, especially considering how it comes punctuated with applause.
The record’s main problem seems to be its interspersed reward. A few of the movements are truly winning, but there’s far too much ear-scraping in between. The first two tracks in particular, State of New York and Unlucky, take up a half-hour album with essentially a lagging eight-minute intro. And the sloshy, aforementioned Medicine Drank might serve for good contrast to the wound-up intricacies of the bulk, but that definitely doesn’t make it a great listening experience. Given how short the whole record is, and how difficult its parts are, the lack of payoff can be a little irritating.
In short, Chopped & Screwed might simply be something you need to witness first-hand. Watching Micachu conduct her personal orchestra into vast swathes of sound would like move and impress, but as a 30-minute stepping-stone LP it doesn’t have the same effect, especially when stacked up to the jittery avant-pop that worked so well as an album on Jewellery. But in a way it’s still reassuring; there’s plenty of talent to find here, and Ms Levi isn’t going to sit patiently and do what’s expected of her. Therein lie the ingredients for a long and fruitful career. Chopped & Screwed is a thoughtful experiment at best and a quasi-misfire at worst, but either way it demands to be analyzed – which alone makes it worthy.