If there can be a musical space where grime, punk and freak-folk meet, then it’s in Jewellery, the debut album from Micachu & the Shapes. This is a band very much of its time, with little care for genre boundaries or backward referencing. Jewellery is a roughshod collection of 12 songs that sound like they’ve been bound together with sticky tape and cheap glue. Led by 21-year-old Harry Partch fan Mica Levi, the group also contains keyboard player Raisa Khan and drummer (and leader of his own nine-piece drum ‘n’ bass band) Marc Pell. Completing this rag-tag collective is a producer: the microhouse musician of many aliases, Matthew Herbert.
A kind of scruffy beauty inhabits Levi’s songs, which lurch between jagged severity and sunny pop. Most of the guitar lines are acoustic and out of standard tune, with the three warring musicians often sounding like they’re only making a cursory attempt to listen to what the others are playing. Scraps of influences occasionally surface (Ian Dury, Leila, Bongwater), but this is fiercely original music that never lingers long in one place; only two songs make it over the three-minute mark.
Opening song “Vulture” gallops into life, with a wall of fuzz-coated noise supplemented by whimsical fairground organ, furiously clashing guitar, and bursts of cacophonous drumming. Somewhere in the mix is Levi’s vocal, which ranges from shrill falsetto to snarled cockney. Like much of the album, “Vulture” is scabrous and witty and takes repeat plays to fully process. The brevity of their songs and the multitude of ideas on display makes it feel like you’re running along behind them, out of breath and desperately trying to keep up with each new twist in the road.
At times the songs are stripped down and bare (“Floor”); at others they jolt into odd shapes through processed screams and bleeps (“Curly Teeth”). Levi’s lyrics suggest a talent far beyond her years and are often uncommonly moving. She seems to have the same inherent understanding of the foibles of human relationships that PJ Harvey demonstrated on Dry. On “Eat Your Heart,” she sings: “I’m so tired/ My muscles ache/ And I’m so bored/ That my heart can’t break.” There are even hints that Micachu & the Shapes could forge a palpable presence in pop, especially when they settle into the trill groove of the straightforward “Golden Phone” or the beat-heavy “Ship.”
Anyone who has found beauty in a chipped tooth or a grazed knee will find much to love here. Jewellery certainly doesn’t suffer from a paucity of ideas, and the lyrical subjects are more than a match for the band’s heterogeneous musical leanings (“I won’t have sex, because of STDs,” Levi memorably quips on “Just in Case”). They even cheekily steal the riff from the Champs’ “Tequila” for “Calculator,” one of the few signifiers of other music casting an influence on the Shapes’ brash mêlée. The sheer weight of bright ideas can feel overwhelming at times, but Jewellery is brimming with invention, offering a musical shot in the arm that makes this one of the essential albums of 2009.