*Originally published for The 405 (23/7/12)
It's been three years since Micachu and the Shapes won critics over with their improbable pop debut, and a year since their high-brow live recordings with the London Sinfonietta, but their latest offering, Never, is where they have truly found themselves.
That said, there doesn't seem to be anything startlingly different with the music on Never. It just oozes more confidence. On 'Easy', the nasty, discordant post-punk sound of their debut, Jewellery, returns, with detuned guitars spasming over chop pop textures and homemade instruments dancing together. It's nice to hear they've still got a trusty vacuum cleaner to provide some of the drone effects, but what is really different is the assuredness that emits from every clash, bang or wallop, or how well 'Easy' and 'Never' flow into each another.
'Low Dogg', taken from their 2011 live album Chopped and Screwed, has received a new energy on Never. Menacing synths replace the original Sinfonietta's stringed instruments, which sound bizarrely similar to the twisted synth progressions on Grimes's, 'Oblivion.' It's not necessarily an improvement on the live recording, but the sound is sharper and really lifts the slightly dulled hip-hop rhythms. Lead singer Mica Levi is full of character here – her East London growl snuggled comfortably between beats.
Another track that has made its way over from Chopped and Screwed is the rather doomy and introspective, 'Fall'. It's a depressing little number with deformed jazz chords hopping between gloopy reverb and purring drum rolls. The lyrics are hard to discern, but the dark, cinematic sounds towards the end of the track seem to speak of an inconsolable situation. Whatever its meaning, 'Fall' is an immersive and enthralling listen.
Many albums are loaded with their strongest tracks at the beginning or end, but the best songs on Never are actually clustered in the middle. 'Holiday' is laced with rewound cassette tapes and light hearted chants: "I can't wait for my holiday, I've had my work cut out for me." It's catchy with ooh-and-ah harmonies and it really feels like the trio had boundless fun putting this track together.
A nostalgic, fairground tune whirls throughout 'Slick' as vocals gargle between snap-happy percussions, but the following track, 'OK', is even more attractive in sound. Keyboardist Raisa Khan and Levi sing, "Are you sure you're ok? Couldn't be better," in call-and-response over thick, industrial noise, yet the track offers an earthier, psychedelic sound with dreamy vocals and synths mimicking prog-rock guitars. Like 'Holiday', the song has conventional structures and accessible lyrics, propelling Micachu and the Shapes into their most poppy territory yet.
'You Know' and 'Glamour', sadly, fail to fit anywhere between the band's admirable experimentalism and organised chaos, falling quickly behind the overwhelming amount of solid tracks on the LP.
The definitive track of the album comes in the sonic-sized form of the oxymoron entitled, 'Nothing.' Lying somewhere between a sedated Ty Segall track and a warped 50s rock 'n' roll ballad, 'Nothing' sees gritty guitars and rich harmonies married together as handsome male vocals carry the verses. Smart lyrical arrangements ("We had everything to lose, so I stood on a cigarette, and decided we weren't finished yet") anticipate an explosion of quivering synths, choral singing and broken guitar solos, leaving your brain suitably fuzzy and warm at the close.
Micachu and the Shapes have retained their knack for producing an accomplished smorgasbord of sound on Never, but have done so without alienating listeners or sounding tired. Their new material is stronger than ever and, for better or worse, edges just that bit nearer to pop music. Who knows what they will come up with next.