Speedy Ortiz are a quartet from Northampton, Massachusetts who make a distinctly early ’90s influenced punk rock clatter, but there’s more to them than that. The band have coalesced around singer and guitarist Sadie Dupuis, who began Speedy Ortiz as a distinctly lo-fi project named after an obscure comic book character. Dupuis’ caustic verbal dexterity and lyrical wordplay lifts full-length debut album Major Arcana beyond reverent derivativeness.
Recorded with Dinosaur Jr and Chelsea Light Moving engineer Justin Pizzoferrato in his Massachusetts studio, Major Arcana mines a particular gnarled and rough-hewn guitar crunch. The songs are wrapped up in angular riffs and crunching heavy choruses. There is a certain unavoidable joy to music like this when it is done well, and highlights like opener Pioneer Spine, Tiger Tank and the rousing Fun are excellent examples of intelligent indie rock.
As powerful as the music can be, it mostly provides the vehicle for Dupuis’ lyrics. The idiosyncratic lines and oblique references frequently bring to mind US indie’s legendary wordsmith Stephen Malkmus and the music is often also redolent of Pavement in the sometimes wayward verses, as on the woozy lament of No Below, which features Dupuis crying “I was better off just being dead”. The one thing Dupuis has which provides an almost constant highlight here is her propensity for a killer line in almost every song. The best of these lines is the self-loathing proclamation that “My mouth is a factory for every toxic part of speech I spew”. Dupuis has a master’s degree in poetry and you can certainly appreciate that influence in the 10 tracks here.
Musically, the full band of bassist Dan Ferm, guitarist Matt Robidoux and drummer Mike Falcone, in harness with Dupuis, have done an excellent job in progressing Speedy Ortiz’s sound onwards to a more satisfying place. At times, however, the album veers into a slightly ponderous sludge. Plough is musically forgettable but, fortunately, it is partially redeemed by the witty lyrics and hooks.
Far better are the musical moments here that are less trudging, looser and more off kilter. Hitch is knotty and twisted, the riffs circling around each other gloriously. Equally as effective is the discordant Cash Cab that sees Dupuis’ vocal given some harsh distorted treatment. These moments suggest that Speedy Ortiz offer more than straight ahead direct indie rock, perhaps in the vein of diverting bands like The Breeders.
The best expression of Speedy Ortiz’s slightly more experimental tendencies comes in the form of six-minute closing song MKVI. The markedly longer length allows the band to indulge a little more, with the riff-laden verses and chorus melting away into a sprawling mass of drums and feedback with Dupuis lamenting “I’ve got nothing”. It’s a great way to finish.
Major Arcana is certainly not a perfect debut and does have some flaws, but it succeeds in establishing Speedy Ortiz as a band with promise and scope to build on.