July 4, 2013

Album Review: Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana


The story of Speedy Ortiz and their darkhorse rise within the indie ranks doesn’t really hold any atypical anecdotes or secrets in their band history lore. What began as the solo project of lead singer Sadie Dupuis evolved into the mechanical quartet of guitarist Matt Robidoux, bassist Darl Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone it is today without the help of big brand tastemaker discovery or a trendy scene like Brooklyn or Los Angeles propping them up. In fact, Dupuis pulled a reverse-transplant by trading in NYC's busy streets for the 413 of Northampton, MA, a diamond in the rough 90 miles removed from the state’s hub of Boston, and one that’s known more so in 2013 for academics and liberal arts than the alt-rock hot spot it was when Thurston and Kim were moving in rather than dividing the household. The latter detail alone is an endless talking point among outsiders when it comes to assessing the area’s burgeoning scene comprised alongside the quartet's peers California X, Potty Mouth and Psychic Blood, who through guilt by area code association and an affliction for reverb pedals, obligatorily lumps them into the grunge-era revivalist category.

Yet, Speedy Ortiz are more likely true life nerds who've effortlessly stumbled into the indie-punk cool culture game. Their name itself is derived from a character in the alt-comic book series Love and Rockets for starters, and when the four aren't playing music, they're bettering the real world through teaching jobs or refining their non-instrument skills as poet masters and visual artists. You're just as likely to spot them at their compadres' DIY house shows as much as you are tweeting about SVU marathons on a Saturday night, and I'm pretty sure that maroon and gold sweater on Darl Ferm from recent press photos got its money's worth of wear during the band's spring tour. Speedy Ortiz are refreshingly self-aware indie rock with no compromises to be considered, and on their first full-length, Major Arcana, the modern faces of the five college scene rattle out a place of their own with a textbook knowledge of indie guitar rock history by Helium, early Hole, Unwound and everything in between comfortably at rest in their rearviews with their best directions being those looking down or forward.

Speedy Ortiz's 2012 EP, Sports, balanced the rail with hesitating twists and small rumbles that fit the cassette culture feel of basement shows they were born into, but with an assist from Massachussetts scene it-producer Justin Pizzoferrato -- who has chiseled out impressive rock sculptures for the likes of Dinosaur Jr. and Thurston Moore's Chelsea Light Moving in a similar sense that Albini did for Nirvana and the Breeders -- the knotty Northamptonites crank out headier depths and directions over the course of 10 tracks billowing with dark smoke below the surface. Front-end trifecta "Pioneer Spine," "Tiger Tank" and "Hitch" shove off the angular timidness of earlier material with impatient outbursts of noise wound around Dupuis' diary entries that cull together tight-laced wit and fortune telling aimed at hapless love scenarios, while the juxtaposing sequence between voodoo doll prayer "Casper (1955)," the friendlier childhood ghost look-back "No Below" and the apprehensive "Gary" puts the frontwoman's brainy lyrics before the cartload of cantankerous alter offerings in Robidoux's guitar physics or Ferm and Falcone's repressed post-hardcore habituals (later unhinged on "Cash Cab.") When the four collect their heads on even ground, the results are more straight-forward answers in its alternative math where the punk is simplified to its lowest common denominator ("Fun,") or "x" is solved for complicated sex pop ("Plough," "MKVI.")

Indie rock, when torn away of its fashion sense, is a traditionalists' genre, which makes the urge to connect the dots between past greats to today's rising sounds inevitable, but as Mike Falcone told Rolling Stone back in June, he thinks Speedy Ortiz "sound like now." It's a sentiment you'll be hard-pressed disagreeing with after hearing the quartet think up a trove of alternative ways to hack away at the guitar rock code until they've found something worth offering to today's modern-minded status quo. With Robidoux, Ferm and Falcone's articulated heaviness and triangular throttle equivocally neatened up by Sadie Dupuis' whip-smart songwriting and seething vocals, the unpredictable cards within Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana make the Western Mass band's debut a trump.



Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana will be released July 9, 2013 on Carpark Records.

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