The current music underground is littered with connoisseurs. Scores of talented folk with discerning record collector’s ears are ably recreating beloved bits of fuzz and putting subtle twists on sounds and genres that never quite broke through 20 or 30 years ago. Some of it is admittedly quite good, topping faded obscurities by nudging their skewed sounds skyward or submerging them even further into the bloody red. But even at peak performance, it’s easy to catch ennui from yet another round of spot-the-influence. Londoner Mica “Micachu” Levy
seems to have avoided this pitfall by beginning her song-writing career at the age of four, well before the impulse to cop hip poses could set in. Now just 21, still young enough to sing a line like “I’ll live for 20 years!” as if it were an impossible boast, she’s already composed for the London Philharmonic. But her real passion, luckily, lies in avant-garde pop music. The startling originality of the songs on her debut record, Jewellry, clarifies a truth that’s simple, if not often articulated: We’ve heard from enough connoisseurs, but not nearly enough bona fide prodigies.
There’s so much compact inventiveness in Jewellry’s tracks that it’s easy to overestimate the novelty of their structure. When opener “Vulture” swings from grimy rumbling to demented Max Fleischer cartoon, the weirdness of the sounds obscures the realization that it’s just switching off between two parts. Mica’s main instrument is a self-modified guitar she calls “the chu” (as in Mica+“chu”). Her songs are more often built from bits of intricately sculpted sonic debris. Producer Matthew Herbert shares (or lends?) an enthusiasm for whimsical musique concrète loops. “Lips” uses the sound of a kiss as a rhythmic counterpoint, while “Turn Me Well” ably taps a switched-on vacuum cleaner as a source for gently blanketing drone. More conventionally recognizable musical elements are toyed with as well. The strummed opening of “Calculator” will immediately place the shouted song title “Tequila” at the tip of the tongue; the uncontained playhouse sounds that evolve from there might trigger the logical secondary reference of a dancing Pee-wee Herman. As most of these songs are well under three minutes, ideas come faster than they can be noted and will be discarded for a new plaything soon enough.
Mica’s persona is just as mercurial as her compositions. She sings in a gruff tomboy midrange only partially smushed by a London burr, a perfect match for her androgynous Dickens orphan looks. She sounds convincingly tough in the midst of hip-hop beats or punk bashing, effortlessly breezy inside the album’s most streamlined pop hit, “Golden Phone,” and even slightly PJ Harvey-spooky over the bare strums on “Floor.” Moving past the sonic oddity to really dig into the lyrical content provides more confusing delights. Late-album standout “Wrong” is fascinating for its tangled gender roles. While a glance into any glass-fronted Crunch gym in Manhattan would suggest that a song about eluding heartbreak through exercise could be emotionally unisex, Mica brings an aggressive, masculine voice to her novel theme. “I’ll gain complete control, I’ll take on anyone,” she barks over herky-jerky thuds. But then, as the song’s clutter strips away, the brave façade does as well. “I’m so tired, my muscles ache, and I’m so bored that my heart can’t break,” she feebly insists, suddenly, unexpectedly vulnerable.
Like any strong debut, Jewellry
simultaneously stands on its own and leaves you wanting more. Despite its unusual components, it’s a pop album and not a taxing experiment in sound. But it’s so all over the place that it leaves the listener struggling to discern who this girl really is, and if her bouts of emotional lucidity are just another mask for a playful free spirit. How is a college-aged wunderkind, who pouts, “I’ll stumble along expecting life to be tough” in the midst of her puzzling, fantastic debut record for the legendary Rough Trade
label, to be entirely trusted?