Micachu And The Shapes and The London Sinfonietta – Chopped And Screwed (Rough Trade)
by Tom Randall
This record’s been out for a minute, but bear with me.
Remember “chillwave’, and how much fucking excitement there was in certain circles for it? Received wisdom traces much of the woozy aesthetic to J Dilla, who pitch-shifted, warped and tweaked the constituents of his beats (but often had a straight-up “boom-clap” anchoring the whole thing) and has burned his way into the discourse in spite of an untimely death.
Dunno, man. Where was the menace? Where was the genuine sense of unease, tendrils of anxiety wound through the ventricles of that dead-centre knock ricocheting out of a Dilla beat? Is there any room for that sentiment in the bleached odes to a golden youth and summers passed that clogged the blogs till bursting in the summer of 2009?
It’s in here — in what is, I guess, Mica and her band’s sophomore album. Granted, it’s DJ Screw’s oeuvre that’s the explicit touchstone for Mica Levi in this case. Screw had his own intuitive methods for shining a demented light in the cracks between the beats, slowing tracks to a hallucinogenic level — the spray of reverb of a snare, the weight of pitch-shifted basslines, the demonic drawl of slowed vocals.
I doubt it’s the halo of my intense fondness Jewellery, their debut, that has me so in love with this. As you may have heard, the emphasis in Chopped And Screwed is not on cavalier hooks rendered in found-sound and noise. Mica has taken inspiration from some of the most idiosyncratic avant-rap ever made. But rather than have a bash at the same technique used by Screw and his acolytes, the vessel into which Levi’s fondness for the grind of slowed bass and synth is poured is that of the chamber orchestra.
Near unisons on high strings grate and grapple over a warm but ominous bowed bass figure on opener ‘State Of New York’ permeated by garbled vocals set back in the mix. ‘Unlucky’ thuds with a minimal and mildly dissonant vocal melody, supported by a rickety structure of scrapes and claps until strings awaken and reach awkwardly for some hazy ideal of consonance only to collapse into spasmodic squabbles.
From there, a comparatively steady rhythm eases us into the first proper hook of the record — ‘Everything’ sports a truly elegant vocal melody, speaking to wistful pain as it rides over the anxious threshing of the homemade ‘Chopper’. As the rate of ‘Chopper’ rate varies so does Mica’s placement of the melody recalling the effects of intoxication when the mind slows but the heart races and energy charges around the body. [The following is a great video if you have an interest in the creation of music – Ed]
‘Average’ fits along in an atonal rage into ‘Freaks’ where a melody thickened by what feels like microtones swings back and forth until the gears of some ancient siege engine are engaged and pock the soundscape with a loping clunk.
‘Medicine Drank’, an explicit reference to the drug of choice of DJ Screw (a mixture of cough mixture and soft drink known as ‘Purple Drank’) begins with a reedy and hollow figure like laboured breathing that slides into an elegiac vocal lament that softly unfurls, revealing the subject’s dignity and resilience amid the de-personalisation inherent in the disorientation already alluded to. The twitchy agitations of grinding strings bubble softly and gradually gain traction, the state of chemical jostling returning.
‘Low Dogg’ is the ear’s next relief-stop, chugging and boom-clap and sing-song, augmented by scrambling glissando strings between the beats and what sounds like poorly wound cat-gut bass strings from which all manner of beastly and misshapen vibrations wriggle loose to have their evil way in the world.
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