Speedy Ortiz’s Major Arcana is the latest recipient of my newest, weird-but-endearing-but-really-mostly-weird behavior: chastely avoiding the advance singles in favor of hearing the album in its entirety. If not for the NPR stream weakening my self-control, I likely would have waited until I picked up the vinyl at their record release show. It’s like Tim Tebow discovered indie rock. Whether this habit is stranger than my old routine of naming custom players in the EA Sports NHL video game series after members of my favorite bands is debatable—Johnny Temple manned the blue line for at least five years—but such tests of blind trust are more exciting to me than hearing an awaited album piecemeal through blog track debuts.
Most bands who've earned this badge of honor have built that trust on a long track record of excellence, i.e. Bottomless Pit and Joel R. L. Phelps and the Downer Trio, whose forthcoming LPs can safely write themselves into the upper echelons of my year-end list. Speedy Ortiz’s remarkably rapid ascent from solo bedroom project to the Allston basement circuit to Pitchfork/NY Times favorites offers no such security blanket. Major Arcana is their debut LP, provided that the bedroom-era The Death of Speedy Ortiz gets chalked up as their version of a hip-hop mix tape. My trust is based on their limited discography—two bedroom sketchbooks, a pair of worthy singles, and the wonderful Sports EP—and the faith that they’re locked into their upward trajectory. I’ve been burned by fealty before, as my near-mint copy of Neon Bible will dourly attest, and I’ll surely be burned again, but not enough to cease this behavior.
Not this time, fortunately. Major Arcana blows by the lofty projections I’d set, causing me to tear up stacks of charts and graphs in mock disgust. From Darl Fern’s harmonic bass line that opens “Pioneer Spine” to the spiraling cacophony that closes “MKVI,” Major Arcana provides striking combinations of detail and destruction, hooks and claws, empathy and scorn, smarts and snarks. Those pairings aren’t necessarily new for Speedy Ortiz, but it’s hard to think of anything prior that hits as hard as the horror-movie fake-out of “Gary,” lodges in the brain like “I see me and you in the tiger tank,” aims for the heart like the friendship of “No Below,” sharpens its daggers like “Pioneer Spine” (“I want the truth / Even if I gotta rip it from you”), snaps into focus like the anthemic charge of “Plough,” or elicits laughs like the Kenny Powers-biting “I’m getting my dick sucked on the regular” from “Fun.” The pacing steals almost every move from my mix-tape playbook, using the downward arc of “Casper (1995)” to segue into the balladic “No Below,” lodging the pop rush of “Fun” between the album’s two most vicious riffs, and not putting another song after the obvious last song on the album. (It’s an even worse offense if you pull this move, pre-encore, in concert.) That said, it never feels like a mix of their oft-discussed influences, a wise departure from Sports’ role-playing turns.
Major Arcana’s peak is the scorching and dynamic “Cash Cab.” The swaggering bass line and guitar feedback duel alone would have prompted highlighting, but it’s the transition from the break-up pain of its first half (“All the smart ones repress / They get amnesia, and now I want to forget / I loved someone who left me for dead”) to the renewed optimism of its second half (“I wanna be with somebody just like me / Someone who laughs at a crashed car rental / Someone who hurts in an accident / Someone as scared of abandonment”). Make no mistake; Sadie Dupuis is playing an emotional shell game here. She prefaces the latter admission with “Here comes another empty threat,” casts doubt on whether the repeat of “Somebody just like me” is romantic or desperate, and essentially pulls out the rug with the final line “I’ll do all this if you pay me.” But such contradictory sleights of hand don’t detract from the resonance of the song’s best line “And all I’ll ever do is untie all your knots, dissolve all your thoughts.” Like the rest of Major Arcana, “Cash Cab” isn’t easily resolved, and is all the better for it.
What I can easily resolve is the big picture shift that occurred with Major Arcana: Speedy Ortiz found its identity. That’s a remarkable achievement for two short years, but from the songwriting to the performances, Major Arcana is assured. It’s nothing against what came before Major Arcana—if only all bands offered the coming-of-age narrative of Sports, “Cutco,” and “Taylor Swift”—but I’m definitely excited to see what Speedy Ortiz does with their identity now that they’ve nailed it down.
(In return for Speedy Ortiz rewarding my trust, I vowed to write an entire review without mentioning Pavement, Polvo, Unwound, Helium, Archers of Loaf, Versus, Liz Phair, Sebadoh, or Chavez—oh.)
The fact that I've managed to review many of Exploding in Sound Records' releases to date without turning a review into a label profile demonstrates considerable restraint. It's an easy but now-overdue narrative; it's been a while since a label catered to my tastes so consistently, with many of its acts both drawing from and capably updating the '90s indie/alternative rock that I grew up on. Despite being geographically scattered (with label chief Dan Goldin based in New York City but a cluster of bands in Boston), its roster has the stylistic bleed that was a '90s scene trademark. (Quick case study: many of Champaign-Urbana's class of 1993—Hum, Love Cup, Poster Children, Honcho Overload—shared a fondness for heavy guitars, if not members and/or pedal chains. Contrast that commendable smear with the niche-oriented scene I encountered there at the turn of the millenium.) I've rarely caught only one of their acts on a bill, since Pile, Fat History Month, Grass Is Green, Speedy Ortiz, and Ovlov seem magnetically attracted to each other. And why not? They've all released excellent records that claw at each other for the highest placement on my year-end lists.
This narrative became unavoidable with Ovlov's Am; it's a family affair beyond the obvious distinction of the group's shared parentage. Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis contributes vocals to four tracks, three members of Grass Is Green add instrumentation, and Grass Is Green's Michael John Thomas III handles production duties. Yet Am is a different beast than Speedy Ortiz's Sports or Grass Is Green's Ronson, offering sludgy-yet-sweet blasts of amp-quaking grunge.
I often avoid using that genre tag, ever wary of what it wrought later in the decade. But Am's reference points steer clear of the radio-friendly unit-shifters that shall not be named (if you say Candlebox's name three times, they appear to a never-ending acoustic set in your living room), sticking with late '80s Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, and Nirvana. Steve Hartlett sounds like a dead-ringer for J. Mascis at times, making me wonder if he'll also look like a metal-shop instructor/wizard in twenty-five years. Not that I'm complaining; as much as I've enjoyed the Dinosaur Jr. reunion, Ovlov's "The Well" might very well do a superior job of channeling the energy of You're Living All Over Me. If there's a fight for the affectionate nickname of "Dinosaur Jr. Jr.," I'll side with Ovlov mucking it up with Living All Over Me/Bug sonics than Yuck's Green Mind/Where You Been evocations.
Am's feast of sludge doesn't supersede the songwriting or the melodies essential to repeated plays. Opener "Grapes" could succeed on its basement-show My Bloody Valentine riff alone, but its Hartlett/Dupuis duet is the highlight, offering sweetness and light where those elements . Dupuis's appearances on "The Well" and the aching, mid-tempo "Where's My Dini?" make an argument for her full-time employment in Ovlov, if not for, you know, Speedy Ortiz. The throttling "Nü Pünk" is a showcase for drummer Theo Hartlett, but his brother's melancholic vocal line cuts through the fury. While Steve Hartlett wisely avoids challenging Mascis to a soloing duel, stretching out with noise-wrangling outros on "Blue Baby" and "The Great Alligator" at the record's close proves cathartic. The only head-scratcher is "There's My Dini," which switches from half-spoken, half-ranting verses reminiscent of King Missle to a more familiar, melodic chorus. Nothing against the authors of "Jesus Was Way Cool," but for Ovlov, it's a mood shift away from their sweet spot.
It'll be a challenge to rank Ovlov's Am against Fat History Month's Bad History Month, Two Inch Astronaut's Bad Brother, and Speedy Ortiz's upcoming Major Arcana when December rolls around, but one I'm all too happy to face. Pausing the gravitational pull towards discussing their respective '90s touchstones for a merciful minute, my rankings will ultimately come less from which scuffed CDs they cite and more from their respective songwriting styles. Ovlov's forceful, tuneful melancholy stakes equal claim to both my car stereo and my headphones, so their peers, past and present, on Exploding in Sound Records need to watch out.
It doesn’t surprise me that the members of Speedy Ortiz have tired of the ’90s-rock tag. Virtually every review of one of the group’s releases bundles together a few ’90s indie/alt-rock reference points: “Mary Timony fronting Archers of Loaf” (Pitchfork); “Belly, Throwing Muses and the Breeders, but also… Pixies, Chavez and Polvo” (); “Kudgel or Swirlies, or… Thingy” (Boston Globe); “influenced almost exclusively by the Matador Records roster circa ’95” (Stereogum); “early Sebadoh/Sentridoh, Helium’s pre-Pirate Prude singles, or a guitar-overdosed version of Liz Phair’s Girly Sounds demos” (this very site). It’s death by flattery—none of the references are used negatively, but the cumulative effect transports Speedy Ortiz from active status in 2013 to the back pages of a musty 1996 copy of Magnet. If not for the tremendous array of names dropped, these reviews would push Speedy Ortiz into the singular, purified nostalgia of a tribute act. Come see Chavest, Northampton’s most debonair Chavez cover band.
Here’s the rub: however exhausting the constant decade devolution must be for Speedy Ortiz, there may not be a better time to satiate the ’90stalgia urge. Consider how many ’90s staples have embarked on reunion tours and/or had their work reissued with glowing new liner notes in the past few years, or instead, try to think of a few who haven’t. These bands have returned to larger, more receptive audiences. Older listeners have either forgotten or forgiven any late-period slides. Newer fans are ecstatic about the once-implausible opportunity to see one of their favorites in concert. Yet comparatively few of these acts have released any new music, and those who have are typically feeding into the legend, not creating a new one. Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding, for example, was a perfect encapsulation of what fans hoped to hear from a new Superchunk record (i.e., their signature balance of melody and energy), but it doesn’t challenge any long-standing notions about their sound, except, perhaps, the idea that their period in the sun had ended before Come Pick Me Up and Here’s to Shutting Up. Both fans and critics are more receptive now to that era of bands
(and bands influenced by that era) than any time since 1999. It’s not like there weren’t Pavement-influenced acts in the mid-’00s—the ever-infuriating name Tapes ’n Tapes assures me of that—but I don’t recall them being viewed with the same rose-colored glasses.
With full sympathy for Speedy Ortiz’s exhaustion over the ’90s tag, its constant application is largely to their benefit. And as I wrote in my review of their first three releases, Speedy Ortiz does a much better job recontextualizing this era than their peers. Part of the fun of Speedy Ortiz’s music is connecting the dots. Last year’s Sports EP practically authors a companion mix tape—there’s the Breeders’ combination of hooks and lust on “Basketball,” the pairing of pre-bed-shitting Veruca Salt allure and Polvo weirdness of the lurching “Indoor Soccer,” the surprising tenderness of Pavement’s “Here” successfully updated in “Curling,” a wordplay-driven Brighten the Corners-era anthem in “Silver Spring,” and an Unwound guitar freak-out to close out “Suck Buddies.” I’d enjoy Sports if these reminders were all it had to offer, but what makes it a worthy successor to the ’90s tradition of essential EPs is how the songwriting trumps the song-referencing. “Curling” isn’t an empty pointer to “Here,” it’s a surprisingly early embrace of adult life when remembering an impulsive relationship with an ex. Sadie Dupuis comes across as a compelling, charismatic lyricist, not the Wikipedia list of ’90s indie rock bands. Yes, Sports recalls that era, but it also transcends it.
What Speedy Ortiz offers over those stasis-cherishing reunions is unfettered, rapid evolution, a process that’s twenty years in the rearview for Pavement and Superchunk. There was a huge leap from the one-woman bedroom recordings of The Death of Speedy Ortiz / Cop Kicker EP to the polished alt-rock of “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan,” and the Sports EP demonstrates a comparable jump, with the four-piece edition offering newfound precision. They didn’t stop to catch their breath: in concerts following the EP’s release, the rhythm section downright pummeled “Indoor Soccer” and guitarist Matt Robidoux ended sets with noise-crazed antics.
Speedy Ortiz’s newest single, “Ka-Prow!” b/w “Hexxy,” flexes this burgeoning musculature. As a precursor to their upcoming LP, Major Arcana (due 7/9 on Carpark Records, home to Cloud Nothings, Toro Y Moi, and Memory Tapes), this single bolsters two tracks from Speedy Ortiz’s solo-project beginnings with the full power of their current line-up. Gone is the rickety charm of the early versions; these definitive renditions blister the skin with huge, explosive riffs. “Ka-Prow!” even got a Buzz Bin-worthy video. Hopefully they’ll do me a solid and re-record Death of… highlight “Cutco” with similar aplomb.
Whether Speedy Ortiz becomes the Pavement of the ’90s, round two, is well beyond my soothsaying capabilities, but I can predict that your window to see them in the basement circuit and grab their early stuff on vinyl is closing fast. Being present for the ascent is much more exciting than overpaying for the reunion, and I’m much happier about catching Speedy Ortiz in an Allston basement than seeing Pavement trot out the hits in the cavernous Boston University hockey arena.
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.
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.)