Release Date: Sep 11, 2015
Record label: Rough Trade
Genre(s): Experimental, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Electronic
When you encounter a band whose name puns on Japan’s most loveble yellow video-game character, you know things are going to get interesting. London three-piece Michachu & The Shapes, fronted by composer and songwriter Mica Levi, don’t disappoint on that front. These guys are relentlessly inventive and craft their distinctive take on pop with the help of their own invented, hand-crafted instruments (including the “Chu”, an instrument created and named after Levi herself).
Although Good Sad Happy Bad will likely be criticized as sloppy or haphazard in its design, I feel there’s a significance of care that Micachu and the Shapes put into even their most skeletal pieces that can go unappreciated. That ineffable ability to find emotional balance, a total arc, a conceptual clarity through a complementing tone, sample, or inflection is on display here on Good Sad Happy Bad in some of the weirdest and most satisfying ways. Developed from a rehearsal session that drummer Marc Pell recorded (apparently in secret), the record’s many sonic ideas spring from a well of beautified anxiety, warped experiments in genre, and feeling that ache with nervous energy.
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.
Mica Levi often seems like a mad scientist: an oddball who’s happiest tinkering away in her lab and making strange noises with her even stranger machines, using household props like vacuum cleaners and bizarre homemade instruments with her band The Shapes. In 2013, she unveiled her weirdest creation yet. Her BAFTA-nominated, European Film Award-winning score for Jonathan Glazer’s acclaimed film Under The Skin, a creepy sci-fi horror flick starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress, turned her into a rising star in the high-brow realm of orchestral composition.
How far can music be deconstructed before it’s almost unrecognisable as pop? On her third album Mica Levi, the brains behind Micachu and The Shapes, seems determined to push the anti-song concept as far as it can go while still supporting a melody. Minimalism and oddness used as pop tools is a very 2015 idea, exploited by everyone from FKA Twigs to Young Fathers, but there’s something even more under-boiled about Levi’s work. It’s pop music served al-dente, unconstructed, unadorned, and deceptively playful in a way that can only be meticulously tooled.
As they've gained acclaim for the way they teeter between experimental music and indie pop, Micachu & the Shapes haven't made any concessions. If anything, Good Sad Happy Bad suggests that the trio might be incapable of making them. The projects Mica Levi pursued between 2012's Never and this album, like her award-winning Under the Skin score and her production work on her friend Tirzah's left-field pop EPs, have had more scope and more potential mainstream appeal; meanwhile, the Shapes remain as uncompromising as ever on Good Sad Happy Bad, a title that suggests the collision of sounds and feelings in these unpredictable songs.
Micachu and the Shapes revel in making enjoyable noise. Since their relatively conventional-sounding art-pop debut Jewellery, the band has pushed their experimentation further every new release, from crafting homemade instruments to recording live arrangements alongside orchestras. And now, just a year after releasing her harrowing avant-garde score for the film Under the Skin, Mica Levi has returned to her band to release Good Sad Happy Bad.
Micachu specializes in making music out of bits and pieces of sound that by any conventional standards would be set aside. I guess you’d call this sampling, but these aren’t old soul hooks. They’re micro-scraps of noise—a discarded scream here (“Unity”), a recurring feedback beep here (“LA Poison”)—and when they cohere, the effect is both delightfully improbable and improbably delightful.
Mica Levi doesn’t really see a distinction between failure and risk. She simply creates, and that’s good enough reason to carry on with her main project Micachu & the Shapes, even if at some point such fancy-free immoderation could lead to a lack of definition. There’s no reason to expect any sort of logical structure from Levi, whose screwball debut Jewelllery took a nihilistic stance on art conventions with surprisingly bodacious results.
With ‘Good Sad Happy Bad,’ Micachu and the Shapes draw out the most unhinged, experimental threads of their previous two albums ‘Jewellery’ and ‘Never’. And, considering their longstanding reputation for bizarre tuning combinations and sampling hoovers, that’s really saying something. Singular and hyper-focused, songs like ‘Thinking It,’ and ‘Unity’ train in intently on one idea and tumble chaotically down the hill like a wheel of cheddar at the annual cheese rolling tournament.
Good Sad Happy Bad is the first Micachu and the Shapes album since Mica Levi, the musician at the core of the band, composed one of the decade’s most bone-chilling film soundtracks for Under the Skin. If you’ve seen the surrealist sci-fi work, you can’t hear the low throbs of its score without seeing Scarlett Johansson as an alien femme fatale stalking her prey in a mirrored black expanse. As Micachu, Levi writes songs from a much more playful plane, but some of that disorienting gloom still streaks across her third record with the Shapes.
There comes a time in the careers of many bands whose interests lay on the artier side of the musical spectrum when an irresistible urge to eschew traditional songwriting develops in favour of looser, jam-based working methods. After all, it worked for Can. The latest album from Mica Levi’s bunch originated from an impromptu jam session and, for the most part, sounds a way off the high standards set by their previous work.
Experimental pop figurehead Mica Levi recently described the creation of her band’s third album as “the most free we have been”, which is quite a statement, considering they used a vacuum cleaner on their debut album, Jewellery. While that album, and parts of its successor, Never, had pop hooks thrown into the sonic jumble, Good Sad Happy Bad – born out of a heavily edited jam session – feels more shapeless and, as a result, more frustrating. The hazy electro of opener Sad, the downcast dub of Oh Baby and the creaky Relaxing have their moments, but often the songs are too flimsy – the lilting Unity is pushed off course by what sounds like a braying donkey.
Viewed at a certain distance, the cunning avant-pop of London three-piece Micachu & The Shapes could well be misconstrued as an ad hoc quest for hyper-individualism rather than something more considerable. Having well and truly started as they sought to go on, Mica Levi and her band of merry shapes have both ducked and actively bucked trend in favour of giving zero fucks to conventional pleasures, most recently – and solidly – on 2012's uncompromising Never. An extension of that wholesome pursuit and an experiment in the pluckiest sense of the word, Good Sad Happy Bad frames the trio at the hands of their conviction in the power of the ever hallowed "moment".
Mica Levi, who ditched conservatory training to make odd, joyful punk songs on home-made or repurposed instruments, took a break a little while ago to compose the eerie soundtrack to Under the Skin. Her work here is entirely different from the film’s moody, spare, doomed atmospherics, sprightly almost, full of clap-trap beats and kindergarten-bright keyboard lines, drenched in echoey, hissy room sound and abbreviated to enigma. Songs are mostly short and primary-color simple, repeating riffs to capture a single idea or emotion.