Speedy Ortiz: Major Arcana [Album Review]

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speedy-ortiz-major-arcana-cover Speedy Ortiz
Major Arcana
Carpark Records [2013]


Fire Note Says: Massachusetts band release an album of surprising depth despite their early nineties indie rock obsession.

Album Review: Speedy Ortiz lead singer and songwriter Sadie Dupuis hails from Northampton, MA – a stone’s throw from Amherst, hometown of J. Mascis. The geographic proximity is bested, however, by the her band’s proximity to indie pioneers Dinosaur Jr. (as well as a slew of others.) We encounter the conversational lyrics of Pavement (Dupuis was in a Pavement tribute band) and the angular, biting guitars of Archers Of Loaf. Her voice harkens back to early Liz Phair or, better still, Pod era Kim Deal. There are shades of other fellow New Englanders such as Throwing Muses and Blake Babies too. So it would be tempting to write Major Arcana off as a nostalgia piece, but that would be a mistake. The songs are too good for that. Unlike similar bands with a 90’s jones (Yuck, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Surfer Blood) Speedy Ortiz pulls it off with flair and a distinct personality.

To start with, Dupuis is a professor of poetry at UMass and her lyrics are indeed a testament to that. While seemingly aligned with a Malkmus kind of insouciance, that is only one layer. Underneath is real pain, real hurt. She disguises it with humor and dry wit but the emotional concerns of past slights and betrayals is never too far away. A fine example can be found on the single, “Tiger Tank” where she demurs: “My mouth is a factory/For every toxic part of speech I spew.” The blank verse here is carried through the majority of Major Arcana. It keeps things unpredictable and allows her the freedom to open up in whimsical, angry and sarcastic ways that the tyranny of rhyme often obstructs. Nowhere is her lyrical prowess more pronounced than on the mid-album waltz stunner, “No Below.” Positioned as the record’s centerpiece, it does not disappoint as Dupuis lets us in on some serious school girl drama. Memories of a broken knee prompts her to sing “Spent the summer on crutches/And everybody teased/Except for this one friend/I almost forgot.” There’s a definite feeling of being alone when she delivers “They always said I was better off just being dead.” And the desire for connection in the song’s final line: “I didn’t know you when you were a kid/But swimming with you it sure feels like I did.” A powerhouse track like this can define an artist’s career. It’s really that good.

Speedy Ortiz started out as a solo act but, Dupuis wisely opted to go the full band route and the contributions of her mates cannot be overstated. Matt Robidoux, in particular, adds immensely to Major Arcana. He is a classically trained musician who often mirrors the vocal lines only to depart with dissonance and oddly shaped leads. In lesser hands this treatment could be a distraction, but with Robidoux’s fret board mastery it is damn near revelatory. The rhythm section of Darl Ferm (bass) and Mike Falcone (drums) is rock solid. It is Frem who opens up the album with a series of bass harmonics that sound really cool and then Falcone lays down a very assured beat and they don’t let up. “Fun” is another example of how good this band is as a Slint-like guitar arpeggio turns into an aggressive punk song. The loud/soft dynamics of “Plough” work wonders as Dupuis talks about “adult situations” and the reality that “you picked a virgin over me.” She writes it all off in a very telling way: “You better stop cuz it’s freaking me out.” As dark as the subject matter veers at times, there is always the comforting notion that twenty-somethings are still as self-absorbed as ever.

With Sleater-Kinney and Helium as predecessors, it is curious how little Major Arcana sounds like Wild Flag. Producer John Pizzoferrato (Dinosaur Jr.) achieved the right balance of backwards-glancing reverence and new millennium trickery. As a result this record, though owing a huge debt to all the bands cited above, is unique and very much of this era. Sadie and her gang have created something special using the 90’s as inspiration but they refuse to be prisoner of it. Acknowledging the similarities, Speedy Ortiz is comfortable in their own skin and Major Arcana is sure to get them some notice. At some point, though, I expect that a band as talented as they are will find some turf of their own – despite how close Amherst and Northampton are. Ah, to hell with it. Just “Gimme Indie Rock” and be done with it.

Key Tracks: “No Below”, “Tiger Tank”, “Plough”

Artists With Similar Fire: Yuck / Pavement / Helium

Speedy Ortiz Website
Speedy Ortiz Facebook
Carpark Records

-Reviewed by Scot Lade

Scot Lade
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