After one album from a young musician, you don’t expect them to then go ahead and make their second release a collaboration with an orchestra. But, doing this speaks volumes about the Shapes – Raisa Khan and Marc Pell – and particularly their leader Mica Levi. The debut album Jewellery was a collection of the vibrant and the messy, cobbled together into something truly unique and precious. The range of instruments and styles present on the record hinted at a greater ambition, and here, on Chopped & Screwed, we’re getting the first manifestation of that. The London Sinfonietta are “one of the world’s leading contemporary orchestras” and are no strangers to circumventing convention themselves. Together they set out to make an album inspired by the “chopping and screwing” technique of early 90s hip-hop, with mixed results.
The album was performed live, but apart from a little cheering at the beginning and end, it is easy to forget that it’s a live performance. Although Mica’s vocals echo due to the large concert hall in which it was recorded, it only adds to the atmosphere of the recording. And that word – “atmosphere” – is where this album is really quite a surprise. Jewellery, for all its fuzz and unconventional techniques, was an album full of pop songs. Chopped & Screwed is a much darker and denser project.
The hum being created by the London Sinfonietta throughout the performance is always an uneasy presence; woozy and strange pitches float like a hoard of drunken flies across the backdrop, ebbing and flowing in unpredictable ways giving the whole sound a seasick feeling. The sound was said to have been inspired by a codeine-based cough syrup which slows the mind, and the music here stays very true to this idea.
Levi also delivers the bulk of her lyrics in a drowsy manner that suits the mood of the pieces, but it can also make listening to them in unison with the strings quite a tranquilizing experience. The best moments are the more energetic ones, such as “Everything,” wherein a frantically strummed detuned guitar is backed up by staccato plucked strings and a punchy chorus, and “Low Dogg” where the London Sinfonietta really show their chops at writing a classical neo-hip-hop beat.
Unfortunately, moments like these are separated by relatively long periods of slow-moving and interesting-but-not-that-interesting textural pieces. There are highlights amongst these too; both “Unlucky” and “Fall” are horror movie-esque, and Levi’s droning vocals make them more tense and perversely beautiful.
Chopped & Screwed is an interesting concept that would certainly be fascinating to witness live. However, on record, it does not reach more than a curiosity frequently enough to make it worth many repeat plays. Fans of Micachu should be encouraged though; if these are the kind of ideas and influences that she is taking into the studio for her next proper album then we’re going to have an even more ambitious mixed bag to get into when it arrives.