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Micachu & The Shapes
Never Ben Hewitt , July 24th, 2012 08:33

"For years pop and rock thrived on a kind of energy and madness that predicted the sights and sounds of the future,” chuckles Paul Morley as he slips into fourth gear. He's been stuck in his cyber-car with his road buddy, Kylie Minogue, since 2005 as they whiz around the sights and sounds of a music-mapped city. They've been hurtling through the neon-lit streets of pop music's past for yonks: a turn-off to the 'Autobahn' on their left; a pileup behind them, caused by David Bowie crashing his ruddy car again; after the next roundabout, an exit to a Little Chef owned by Gary Numan.

But now, in 2012, they're running out of gas. The small talk's run dry, Kylie's turning her nose up at Paul's bon mots, and all there is in the distance are ghastly billboards, scrawled in thick crayon with no room for improvisational spillage in-between the lines. A 20-foot high Jessie J stares sternly at them; a behemoth-like Justin Bieber looms ominously ahead. Time to slam it into reverse and retreat, pronto!

It would be a loathsomely snobbish folly, of course, to bemoan the popularity of mass-marketed pop music – just as it would be equally, wilfully dim to pretend that the likes of Rihanna, Lady Gaga et al haven't produced some corking singles. But what is worth griping about is the pervading mistrust of pop music that dares to be different: the eye-rolling dismissiveness at the adventurous, and the mistaking of avant-garde for being 'dull' and aspirations of art for being 'pretentious'.

Just look at the sniffing suspicion that, in some quarters, greeted Micachu and the Shapes' Mica Levi's collaboration with the London Sinfonietta orchestra for last year's Chopped And Screwed. Never mind that, in 2008's Jewellery, she was responsible for one of the finest compact-pop records in aeons; ignore that, lyrically, Chopped And Screwed revolved around the none-too-highbrow pastime of getting out of one's gourd. She teamed up with an orchestra to make a quasi-classical album! What unacceptably highfaluting hijinks!

Thankfully, what Never does is serve an almighty ace past any soul who thinks that intelligent pop music has to be bloody hard work, or that tickling the brain means you can't deliver a hearty and visceral slap to the chaps, too. Because for all of the complexity of the Shapes' latest – the clever-clever arrangements, the off-kilter percussion, the wonderfully weird hooks and so forth – 'Never' is just loads of fucking fun. Opening track 'Easy' sounds like a fairground manned by a dementedly grinning soul: a Through The Looking Glass-style thrill ride with bilious, wonky loops and Levi's punch-drunk drawl of "I'm so easy to please”. Elsewhere, the title-track's scratching, staccato twanging makes use of the Shapes' bizarre collection of homemade instruments, while 'Waste' comes off like Gyratory System squeezed through a mangle. All three are ambitious, odd, madcap; none are impenetrable or anything less than neuron-pleasingly catchy.

Rather than muddy its pop-factor, then, the Shapes' homemade ethic allows it to sparkle: just see the reworked version of 'Low Dogg', transformed from its cough-syrup hiccupping incarnation on Chopped And Screwed into a bouncing, school-yard taunt, or 'Holiday', with its eerie, snake-charming lilt. Mischievous misadventure runs amok throughout, such as on the comically seedy 'Glamour', with its snatches of, teasing gaudy phone conversations ("I'm actually half-naked doing modeling shit”) over a chewed-up bubblegum backdrop.

And, lest that sounds a little too erudite, behold the bangers! 'OK' bludgeons a skronk-heavy riff into submission as Levi has a split-personality discussion with herself ("Are you sure you're okay?/ Never been better”); 'You Know', meanwhile, is a sweetly moon-eyed declaration of affection, as guards are dropped ("I'm telling you this because I care / My feelings are out there”) over the giddiest of skipping, swinging beats. This is pop music, pure and simple: smarter, stranger than your average fare, no doubt, but don't confuse its oddness for inscrutable obtuseness. Someone furnish a courier with a copy, quick, and have them track down Paul and Kylie so they can stick it in the CD player: it might not save their journey, but it'll sure make it a lot more bearable.