Mica Levi seems to be developing two parallel careers – one as a radical contemporary composer and arranger (Chopped And Screwed, the outstanding Under The Skin soundtrack) and the other as leader of this delightfully angular and ramshackle trio. Good Sad Happy Bad is her third album as Michachu And The Shapes, and even by this band’s uninhibited standards, it is their least formal, most expressive and disorientating work. Look more closely at the nuances beneath the surface, however, and it is clear that Levi’s dual careers have much in common with each other.
Levi’s music with The Shapes maintains a rough around the edges, raw and direct quality that sometimes disguises its depth and cleverness. The result is a band that sounds instinctive, casual and unsophisticated but which utilises the well honed skills of both Levi as a composer-bandleader and the contributions of her musicians. Developed from improvisations and jams, the 13 songs here, many of them mercilessly concise, sound collaborative, fresh and urgent. The music is simple and direct, but also obtuse and awkward-sounding.
The arrangements here are much less strategised and off-kilter than the material on Jewellery and Never. Many of the tracks are supported by simple backbeat grooves and intentionally limited guitar riffs. They have a visceral thrill. Often the music sounds warped, wonky, refracted, at risk of toppling over. Sometimes the basic tracks are almost wholly characterised by Marc Pell’s clattering drums – but these are often overlayed with wholly distinctive oddities. Unity, for example, features some anguished screams, whilst the inspired Thinking It features a monologue about the conflict between the drive for good health and the drive for the good life (running vs. smoking, &C.).
Levi’s unusual approach to lyric writing is often to state the obvious (“When I feel sad/I want it all to be OK” on the driving opener Sad or “I was thinking while I was walking” on LA Poison). In some ways, this is refreshing. It’s the kind of unadorned honesty that few others would attempt, whilst its everyday quality helps Levi avoid becoming the kind of personal songwriter described as ‘confessional’ (although her claim that “it’s only suffering that keeps my conscience clean” comes pretty close to crossing a line). Her aim often seems to be to elevate the banal and mundane.
Her approach to singing is even more unusual. Her approach to melody is unconventional, but there are contours to her conversational, slightly detached style of delivery. There is a rise and fall to her phrases. She sometimes explores the upper limits of her vocal register in order to appear wide eyed (especially on Relaxing – where the two chord strum seems limited, but the vocal seems to strain for the furthest boundaries), at other times her execution is deliberately muted and dry.
Everything Levi does seems calculated to appear off the cuff, uninhibited and instinctive, but there is plenty of evidence of a strong compositional mind at work. This is an artist in thrall to the rawness of sound, the mechanics of rhythm (groove is a crucial feature of these songs) and the atavistic possibilities of electronics meeting a small live band set up. It would be easy to leave with a first impression of this music as somewhat cold and emotionless – but Levi explores sense and feeling in a very non-manipulative, dispassionate way. There is something deeply appealing about her elevation of the banal. Her combination of interior logic and the immediacy of improvisation is also captivating. This is deceptive, singular and highly creative music.