Micachu and the Shapes Good Sad Happy Bad

[Rough Trade; 2015]

Styles: loops punk, anxiety, blues, bare pop
Others: Mica Levi, Dean Blunt, Martin Creed, The Breeders

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. More so than 2012’s Never or debut Jewellry before that, Good Sad Happy Bad is truly deconstructed pop, a stripped-down piece of paranoid art punk that explores negative emotional states as a place for positive creation.

The barren, wondering sound of this record exposes its own flaws, puts them front and center, emphasizing its discordance and scarceness as an essential aspect of Mica Levi’s design, not only for the uncanny stereo image it inserts the listener into, but also for how it feels like a person working through their stresses on studio time, being mindful and trying not to take it all in at once, just paying attention to what matters. Part of this is due to how the album was recorded. Much of the material that forms the basis of Good Sad Happy Bad was taken from jams. They’ve developed the songs from that point, no doubt — there’s deliberate overdubbing and counterpoint that works its way in, and drummer Marc Pell attests to having “written” moments as slight as the aimless stick-clicking in peaceful instrumental “Peach” — but the record still retains a revealing roughness around the edges.

The reduced instrumentation — a combination of low, strummed guitar, Raisa Khan’s keys, and abstract musique concrète, all propelled by Pell’s boxy drums — feels at first disarming, too scattered. But the more I listened to these songs, the more these separate parts began to sound like one voice: a strange, hoary, insecure one, blathering on about its morning jog to no one for validation, but still, an established voice, with an honesty to it. I think it’s revealing in these sessions of how they conceive of songs in terms of mood and distinction rather than aiming strictly for harmony or coherence, and the fact that they returned only to add further tension and this overarching self-care zeal shows an inherent self-understanding at work, artists who know where to find their own muse. It just so happens that, this time, it’s in suffering.

Micachu and the Shapes’ songs embody the emotions and strange places people go to when they’re uncertain or upset: they act out in anxious bursts, sputter and shake, and come on too strong. “Sad” opens the record fast and frantic, a street-walking beat underscoring a self-affirmation of “it’s gonna be OK” in a nervous skittering pitch. On “Relaxing,” she sings like someone who’s been awake for two days, slurring over some blissfully unaware punk, life carrying on not noticing her meltdown. Both pieces take a different approach to the same goal of relaxation, reflecting a mind trying to identify its stressors while observing a simple paradox: trying to relax usually has the opposite effect.

Mica can sing when she likes to, but she decides to load the vocal fry on heavy for Good Sad Happy Bad as an expressive choice, coming off desperate but still optimistic, cocksure but already visibly injured, straining against blue chords like someone trying to throw a punch underwater. When I first heard “Sea Air,” I thought it was a bit rough around the edges, a little embarrassing, with Mica screeching frail high notes like someone out of their range and drunk at karaoke. But I refocused; maybe that was the point, as though the song’s subject had finally worked up the courage to sing their heart out no matter how it sounded, a shut-in’s scream therapy, a breath of fresh air.

It reminded me of Dean Blunt in a way, how his voice often sounds amateur and flat, to the point where it gains its own artistic color by foregrounding that obvious shyness. Here, Mica’s affect becomes immediately apparent as “cloying,” someone trying hard to take a deep breath in, trying to force calm to happen. Throughout the record, she projects false confidence, arrogance, laziness, and fear, in quasi-confessional lyrics that bluntly state life’s problems with dry accuracy, buried in sympathetic human grooves that complement or reinforce those attitudes. Good Sad Happy Bad explores a breadth of damaged narration like this, producing a flawed character across the record whose unique accompaniments only further highlight their inability to ground themselves. On Good Sad Happy Bad, her delivery is crucial — though it sometimes seems vain or lazy, it’s actually a characterization within the song, like on “Oh Baby,” where she mixes a tinge of apathy with soulful crooning, a hesitant inflection that mirrors its song’s subjects, stuck in a failing relationship, trying to repair it but audibly jaded, hearts half in it.

The slightest details become emotional gestures under the bare spotlight: “LA Poison” shuffles mechanically along to a brake-tap beep, a constant dulling reality check, while dryly descriptive and bitter lyrics (“all the same”) sputter out laced with ennui, the whole song playing out like the inner monologue of someone during yet another awful morning commute. Mica’s voice murmurs and pities about, over everything, a nasal intonation that’s often misjudged as sounding disinterested. Disillusioned is more accurate, a contrarian voice that can be heard trying to find itself in the moment of the song, sometimes stumbling over it. She wavers flippantly between near notes, picking at melody curiously, turning “Waiting” from a minuscule flute loop into an intimate secret, a private commitment. On closer “Suffering,” she barks out the chorus in a staccato, like a mantra she’s decided to put her faith in: “It’s only suffering/ That keeps my conscience clean.”

Good Sad Happy Bad is ultimately an optimistic record; it tries to bring out the positive in some of the most negative sounds around. Each of these compositions is imbued with a clear and active contrast, like the reverb-dripping murmurs Mica sings to balance out the shredded scream-loop at the center of “Unity,” a blend of dissonance and faint harmony that’s become one of the weirdest earworms I’ve heard. Each song succeeds because of how it takes its own brashness and uses it to communicate something vital, revealing layers of intent underneath that reframes Micachu and the Shapes’ noisy punk ethos as something multifaceted: it’s self-help, a salve for existing in unsafe spaces — sympathetic punk with a silver lining.

Links: Micachu and the Shapes - Rough Trade

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