Micachu & the Shapes f/ the London Sinfonietta
Chopped & Screwed
(Rough Trade; 2011)
By Conrad Amenta | 12 August 2011
Micachu and the Shapes’ Chopped & Screwed, a live collaboration between the Shapes and the London Sinfonietta, is a difficult album for reasons that extend well beyond its writerly intentions and stubborn aesthetic. It’s difficult because it gives the listener so little to work with, but also because it disorients us in relation to our next closest point of reference: Micachu’s critically praised debut Jewellery (2009).
Jewellery was a successful album because it employed a degree of experimentation in form (homemade acoustic instruments blended seamlessly with electronics) and production (warm, orchestral depth), but its sense of melody, structure, and tempo was left intact. It turned an otherwise recognizable pop formula sideways, and so struck that particularly indie pleasure center of pop music that, in a nutshell, isn’t boring. It ended up a top ten album on many sites’ year-end lists, proving that they’d decoded the indie set’s interests in the slight reframing of otherwise catchy tunes.
The point being that experimentation needs to occur relative to something common, is radical only in relation to some previously established center, and nothing seems to please so much as some small rejiggering of the most conventional formulas. Which is how Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat (2004) can garner universal acclaim one year and Rehearsing My Choir (2005) scorn just a year later, or why Radiohead have received a sustained critical hand job since 1997. These bands are only experimental to the degree that their pop center is fundamentally conservative and safe and, to a degree, still recognizable. Jewellery pulled this off; Chopped & Screwed doesn’t.
I’m putting experimentalism into starkly utilitarian terms, I know. “I enjoy when artists experiment because it keeps music engaging in an oversaturated market.” “Successful” experimentation, to me, simply means turning the right combination of components of a formula on their ear, be it arrangements, dynamics, tones, lyrics, or production. It seems that successful experimentation occurs when a balance is struck between making something that is both fresh for the listener to hear and for the artist to make. It’s egalitarian at heart.
Which is to say that it might be interesting for the artist to completely blow up all that is appreciated and enjoyed about their music—as, you may have guessed, Micachu and the Shapes do here—but unless your chief concern is technique, or you harbor some pretensions of how music is “supposed” to be difficult to place, then unsuccessful experimentation is simply alienating, unfair, myopic. It forces the listener to reorient themselves toward that traditional center, and not necessarily for the better. The worst experimental music simply takes its audience for granted, assumes that they do not need to be reinvested in the band each time they hear their music.
Chopped & Screwed takes some of the components experimented with on Jewellery, and then yet more, and manipulates the music to unrecognizable and unsatisfying places. Tempos are dragged down so the album has a drugged feel. The arrangements drift and drag on, never building or moving toward resolution. The goal of this album is not to be ambient (and it certainly isn’t ambient enough), but seemingly to unbalance what affinity the listener established with Jewellery, and undermine that orientation in the name of some form of writerly satisfaction. This may have been an enormously successful experiment in the history of Mica Levi’s songwriting development, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting to listen to.
Songs like “Fall” and “Not So Sure” don’t benefit from having their heart, formulaic though it once was, yanked out of their chest. There is a lot of intentionality at play, and the thesis is sound enough if viewed in some kind of academic vacuum, but the end result is simply boring. It yields no new perspective on its source material, and as with any bad performative piece, it commits the cardinal sin of forgetting who it is for. It is the half-complete offering of a record without an audience, circling in a cul-de-sac of its own indulgence.
There’s little to take from this album except to get temporarily existential about why we listen to experimental music in the first place. If you’ve found this review too far up its own ass to be of use, then perhaps I’ll have made my point anyway: it’s this kind of fundamental discussion about what we expect from music that Chopped & Screwed seems designed to insist that we have. And that the band has forced the issue ignores that the history of experimental music is the history of types of music people were surprised, not forced, to find that they liked. If Chopped & Screwed implies that Micachu and the Shapes want to obscure their relation to the still wonderful Jewellery, then this album isn’t just difficult and unsatisfying—it’s unfortunate.