Mica Levi’s band, formerly known as Micachu and the Shapes, embraces imperfection, evoking late-’80s indie pop in whimsical ideas, unsteady rhythms, and meticulous detailing.
Some artists make being in a band sound like absolutely the worst thing in the world, but not Good Sad Happy Bad (the new name for a rejiggered Micachu and the Shapes), who make you want to dive, headfirst and blinking, into their grottily inviting world of avant-retro pop. Shades may be the fifth album for Mica Levi and co., but it has the enticing naivety of a debut—a result, perhaps, of structural changes within the band, as keyboardist Raisa Khan moves to lead vocals and CJ Calderwood comes in on saxophone, recorder, and electronics.
The key to this youthful buoyancy is a certain embrace of imperfection. Micachu and the Shapes were never exactly the slickest of acts, but Shades is a particularly unselfconscious record, wobbly and wonderful, home to the kind of eccentric ideas, unsteady rhythms, and touches of discordance that more anxious musicians lop off in Pro Tools. “Believe It,” all misshapen ideas and sprightly urgency, could be the first demo of a promising young band before they become embarrassed by their weird edges. It starts with loose cymbal hits, sloppy guitar riffs, and disjointed saxophone skronk before cutting into a melody that sounds—in the very best way—like it was knocked up in 10 minutes on a battered acoustic guitar. The band stumbles through the song like four debutants furtively eyeing each other for chord changes.
This scruffy musical charm, mixed with Khan’s rather prim vocals, lends Shades the air of late-’80s/early-’90s guitar music, sitting somewhere between the jangling indie pop of the C86 bands, early shoegaze, and grunge, as seen through the winsome eyes of Graham Coxon’s noisier solo albums. It’s yet another new look for a band that has explored everything from chopped and screwed symphonics to lo-fi hip-hop beats since debuting in 2009, and they wear it extremely well. The continental guitar shelves of “Reaching” are kissing cousins to the somnambulant psychedelia that Kevin Shields and his sleep-crazed crew dreamed up on Isn’t Anything, while “Honey” has the same deliciously polite suggestion of the Velvet Underground that pre-internet favorites like the Darling Buds and the Shop Assistants used to press up on flexi-disc.
If Shades was just an indie knockoff it would be fun, untaxing, and ultimately unnecessary—a well-written, retro-fitted guilty pleasure for dreaming of better times. Dig into Shades’ apparent spontaneity, however, and a world of detail emerges. “Blessed” dresses its sweetly insouciant melody in a patchwork quilt of disjointed vocal clips, aquatic effects, and ghostly electronic whoosh, while “Taking” sets a grunge guitar line against a twinkling starscape. Best of all is opener “Do It,” whose detuned chords sparkle against tiny, half-submerged melodies played out on what sounds like synth, flute, and recorder. It helps that Levi is an excellent guitarist, capable of wringing transcendent riffs, dinosaur drones, and detuned sludge out of the instrument; Calderwood’s Fun House saxophone rasp brilliantly offsets Levi’s unpredictable playing.
The result is a kind of precise imprecision, as if the band had captured the abandon of their early recordings and then pored over the detail with manic industriousness—tweaking rather than polishing, the better to accentuate the unevenness. Shades is lightning captured in a meticulously painted bottle, and a hell of a good time, to boot.