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Audio Outliers: Rediscovering Recent Gems in Experimental Music

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The Autumn influx of new albums is nearly upon us, and I'm not quite ready. I'm still thinking about two on-the-margin releases from the previous 12 months that made me listen differently while revealing something significant about how the artists approach sound. In late 2010 and early 2011 respectively, the upstate New York band Dufus and the London-based trio Micachu and the Shapes gave us music that scaled back on the noise and tumult of their previous albums to uncover aspects of their music that were always there but were previously obscured.

On May 1 2010 at Kings Place, experimental pop band Micachu and the Shapes collaborated in concert with the London Sinfonietta. The results of this unexpected yet unsurprising partnership became Chopped and Screwed, a live album (released late March 2011) that solidifies Micachu frontwoman Mica Levi's idiosyncratic approach to sound creation while exposing it to a more expansive symphonic environment.

It would be a mistake to perceive this album as individual tracks. Chopped and Screwed is best listened to as a complete and continuous song cycle for voice and chamber orchestra. But rather than being preoccupied with melody, these songs fixate on timbre and intonation. Pitches are bent and smeared across the sonic canvas, then droned as a kind of trippy incantation. Throughout the album, Levi sounds as if she's singing from underneath the shower drain.

Whereas Micachu and the Shapes' Jewellery (2009) was replete with electronic pep, Chopped and Screwed is an experiment in sedation. The album is named for the hip-hop subgenre from which it finds inspiration, in which the beat is slowed down and the hook affected by manipulating the turntable through various fragmenting and looping techniques. If the music sounds as if it's drugging you, then it's doing its job.

As composer, Micachu frontwoman Mica Levi has transferred this process to the orchestra while adding a homemade instrument called "the chopper" to the palette. This cousin of the lap steel guitar uses a wheel mechanism which when turned, plucks strings altered in pitch with a metal bar. Listeners familiar with Levi's prevalent use of the modified guitar called a "chu" on Jewellery and in live performances will undoubtedly hear the connection. This congruity is most obvious during "Everything," with an insistent chugging that quotes the Jewellery opener "Vulture." Levi renders the entire chamber orchestra as one of her homemade instruments--emitting a plethora of pecks, plucks, and other various twitterings, which are especially evident at the end of "Unlucky."

The most accessible of the Chopped and Screwed cuts is "Low Dogg," achieving an uneasy balance between aggressive noise and concise pop. On "Fall," Levi's frail yet pointed string arrangement comes off like a pointed commentary on the cracked and crumbling façade of conventional classical music culture and the public perception of the orchestra. Like jamming innumerable clowns into a Volkswagen Beetle, the composer has created a series of compositions that sound as if an orchestra were stuffed into a squeezebox on the compelling closer "Not So Sure."

Eth, released in September 2010 after ten full-length albums and more than a decade of music-making, sounds every bit the final bow for the itinerant freak-folk band Dufus. And yet in many ways, it is characterized by what it is not: Gone is the non-stop aggressive din of 2002's1:3:1, the frantically earnest vocals of Ball of Design from 2004, the robust yet unadorned instrumentation of In Monstrous Attitude (2009).

Dufus's Maestro Seth Faergolzia's singularly spastic-elastic vocals are still ever-present--buttressed by vertiginous instrumental runs that seem to purposefully meander--but are now filtered through chamber pop that is above all characterized by a somber restraint. Eth finds the eccentric frontman's timbre comparatively more sedated, which keeps the quirky instrumental arrangements from being overshadowed. And while this imbues certain musical elements with a welcome visibility, this decidedly more staid approach seems at odds with the band's brilliant ability to cultivate eccentricity at will. "Life Is Empty" gives us Faergolzia in full folk troubadour mode, while "Gracious Host" is a kind of pseudo-tango--both lacking the panache of singularity that is quintessential Dufus.

The record is at its best when employing the focused, uncluttered arrangements in service of Faergolzia's colorful vocal mania, and the most poignant moments come in bunches. First is the one-two punch of "Silence" and "Dastard," which benefits from an innate sense of gorgeous melodic phrasing, buoyed by economical yet punchy brass lines. In the second half of the album, "Bcuz" is a brilliant confluence of zany pointillist melodies, swelling choruses and clever brass licks. The subsequent "Purple Baby" features wonderfully engaging interplay between vocalist and choir, before an ensuing storm of raucous rhythmic instability eventually settles into a concise and contagious waltz-like chorus.

Both Chopped and Screwed and Eth reinforce the greatest strengths of the artists who created them. Micachu and the Shapes is Harry Partch-meets-pop, and its music eradicates previous notions of classical and pop musics alike. Seth Faergolzia's Dufus has always challenged traditional conceptions about folk through unorthodox and highly-developed melodies and rhythms. But these recent albums discard some of the music's surface qualities from the mix, making the core elements more readily audible.