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Reviews: Speedy Ortiz's Cop Kicker EP, The Death of Speedy Ortiz, and "Taylor Swift" b/w "Swim Fan"

Speedy Ortiz's The Death of Speedy Ortiz

There’s a distinct before and after for Northampton-based guitar rockers Speedy Ortiz. On last year’s Cop Kicker EP and The Death of Speedy Ortiz LP (both freely downloadable on BandCamp), guitarist/vocalist Sadie Dupuis did everything else, too, including “bass, drums, piano, cello, banjo, sound treatments, etc.,” with the end result often qualifying as endearingly ramshackle. In contrast, the “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan” single (available for a whopping dollar on BandCamp) features a full line-up, with guitarist Matt Robidoux, bassist Darl Ferm, and drummer Mike Falcone joining the fold, and the ’90s alt-rock polish of Boston-based producer Paul Q. Kolderie.

The sonic taste-test reminds me of two specific eras of ’90s indie rock. Cop Kicker/The Death of Speedy Ortiz are second-generation cassette dubs of a bedroom-recorded lo-fi solo project—think early Sebadoh/Sentridoh, Helium’s pre-Pirate Prude singles, or a guitar-overdosed version of Liz Phair’s Girly Sound demos. The inviting hooks of the highlights (“Speedy Ortiz,” “Thank You,” “Frankenweenie,” “Teething,” and particularly the key change in “Cutco”) deliver Dupuis’s sarcastic collisions of lust and violence. The combination reminds me of Mary Timony and Liz Phair’s glory days as the indie rock queens of beckoning with one hand and shoving away with the other. There’s filler here, just like on the original models back in 1992, but I’ve listened to “Cutco” more than enough times to make up for a few aimless companions. Plus, to repeat the obvious, it’s free.

Speedy Ortiz's Taylor Swift b/w Swim Fan single

The release dates says five months, but the sonics insist five years in ’90s indie rock time had passed before “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan” came out this March. With a full band and studio production in tow, the single recalls mid-to-late ’90s indie rock that unabashedly pushed hard for college radio play with big guitars, bigger melodies, and indie-rock referentialism. A specific comparison (that admittedly might be lost on 2012 listeners) is the Scottish group Urusei Yatsura, whose “Slain by Elf” from the Slain by Yatsura LP mined a similar merger of indie-rock culture with alt-rock production. (And yes, there is a difference between indie rock and alt-rock, goddamn it.) The chorus of “Taylor Swift” swaggers with newfound confidence and broader lyrical appeal (“Cuz now I got a boy in a hardcore band / I got a boy gets it on to Can / Then there's the boy sings those sad songs I like / I got too many boyfriends to see you tonight”) but I prefer the less-on-the nose sentiment of “Swim Fan,” which revisits the murkier lust of the earlier recordings. Both choruses have floated around my brain for weeks, especially the smeared syllable-play of “Hello magneto metal coney / You got bronze you found me out” in “Swim Fan.”

Speedy Ortiz isn’t alone in reviving ’90s indie and alt-rock, as a slew of recent bands—Yuck, The Joy Formidable, Cymbals Eat Guitars, etc.—has demonstrated a similarly genuine appreciation for the era, but what gets me about these releases is the specificity. There’s a key difference between sounding eerily like Where You Been and evoking memories of flipping through paper mail order catalogs (RIP Parasol Mail Order) and massive CD bins hoping to finally discover what some heralded but unfamiliar band actually sounded like, and Speedy Ortiz could pass for a great find in the latter scenario.

If you’re wondering how Speedy Ortiz will follow up “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan,” you don’t have to wait long. Exploding in Sound Records will issue the Sports EP on 10” vinyl in June, with the knotty guitar work and clean vocal hooks of “Silver Spring” out there as a teaser. (For a final ’90s indie-rock throwback, the EP’s title reminded me that Versus’s The Stars Are Insane had a working title of Meat, Sports and Rock.)

The Haul: Helium's "Pat's Trick" b/w "Ghost Car"

Helium's 'Pat's Trick' b/w 'Ghost Car'

I picked up a used copy of Helium’s 7” for “Pat’s Trick” at Reckless Records and got a booby prize in the sleeve: the sales slip from the previous owner’s original purchase of the single. Along with the Helium find, the haul included two additional singles, each priced at $3.49: one from the space-rock band Flying Saucer Attack (recently recalled by Scott Tennent of Pretty Goes with Pretty) and one from Grenadine (a Simple Machines band featuring Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey and Unrest’s Mark Robinson playing 1920s-style ballads). Sadly, the slip didn’t include any further details, like the store name, the specific singles purchased, the date of sale, or the physical singles for Flying Saucer Attack and Grenadine, so my walk down someone else’s memory lane is cut short.

If you need a refresher on Helium, here goes: Washington, DC expatriate Mary Timony trekked up to Boston for college, leaving behind Dischord’s Autoclave, and replaced Mary Lou Lord in the fledging Helium. I can’t imagine Helium without Timony’s vocals, which alternate between airy wisps and husky monotones, let alone the medieval melodies of her guitar work and the simultaneously inviting/dismissing lyrics. They released two full-lengths, 1995’s fuzzed-out The Dirt of Luck and 1997’s prog-rock-inclined The Magic City, which rank among my favorite Matador Records releases, along with a few essential EPs (Pirate Prude, No Guitars, and the CD5 Superball+, which offers the superb “What Institution Are You From?” [live video link!]). Polvo’s Ash Bowie (Timony’s then-boyfriend) joined the group on bass prior to The Dirt of Luck, and there’s some bleed-through from that group’s off-kilter melodic approach. Helium split up following The Magic City, leaving Timony to an excellent solo career and now Wild Flag, but as you can tell from my purchase of a seventeen-year-old single (cue depression), the original documents hold up.

A-side “Pat’s Trick” is the lead track from The Dirt of Luck, and an excellent intro to the record’s strengths. It made an appearance on Beavis & Butthead, on which the guys commented on double-meanings and the small size of Timony’s nostrils, following up a showing of Helium’s “XXX” video which provided an ample dosage of zingers (“Hey Butthead, I think the TV’s on slow,” “I think this chick just, like, woke up or something,” “She probably doesn’t really start rocking until later,” “Check it out her guitar’s broken”).

The flip side offers the aptly titled “Ghost Car,” a haunting piano ballad muses how “What I’ve got can make you stop this ride to hell so I can get off” and closes with a muted warning to “Stop this car before it goes too far.” It’s an intriguing diversion, but fits better as a b-side than a missing piece of The Dirt of Luck.

From what I can tell, Helium’s b-sides aren’t available digitally, so I can pass along this compilation of b-sides and non-album tracks with more excitement than guilt. Highlights include early single “Lucy” (which appeared on the bonus disc of What’s Up Matador), an alternate take of “Superball” with Joan Wasser from the Dambuilders (who also joined Timony in Mind Science of the Mind, a short-lived side band fronted by Nathan Larson of Shudder to Think), and the aforementioned “What Institution Are You From.” Godspeed to the Soulseek user who initially compiled this material.