Music Reviews
Major Arcana

Speedy Ortiz Major Arcana

(Carpark) Rating - 7/10

It is unlikely that you’ll hear many people discussing Speedy Ortiz without mentioning the 90s, but it doesn’t seem like the band mind very much. The press release for Major Arcana makes no effort to tactfully distance the group from their obvious influences (“Jawbox, Helium, and Chavez”). You sense that Speedy Ortiz rather wish they’d been around 20 years ago to occupy a niche amongst the multitudinal luminaries of indie-rock’s golden age, and on the basis of this debut record, they’d certainly have earned it.

Chances are if you read a few interviews with the band, you’ll find that their list of influences will leave you with more than a handful of half-remembered 90s bands to indulge yourself in – for instance, this seems like they’ll be my gateway into Polvo. I’d wanted to use the phrase “a more playful Slint” to describe the off-kilter plucked harmonics and evasive melodies of opener Pioneer Spine, but it seems like Polvo were the original “more playful Slint” – and the more you inculcate yourself in the dense web of 90s alt influences, the more those links get filled in.  You will never hit an endpoint when delving into this era of indie rock (and that’s one good reason why Speedy Ortiz are worth your time).

Their main idiosyncracy is their lyrics, which brings me to Speedy Ortiz’s most undeniable influence: Pavement. I’ve joked that Major Arcana could have been written by Stephen Malkmus even before I found out about Babement – yeah, Babement: Sadie Dupuis’ all-female Pavement tribute band. There’s barely a lyric on here that couldn’t feasibly have been lifted from a Pavement deep-cut. This is a backhanded compliment more than a diss: not just because Pavement is my favourite band ever, but because I’d usually think Malkmus’ wit was inimitable. Even some of Pavement’s most infamous disciples (Archers of Loaf anyone?) were only occasionally successful in their imitations of Malkmus’ playful, hip-hop influenced infatuation with language over cohesion, but Dupuis is a consistent writer, well on the way to laying down her own skewiff stylistic quirks. I’m spoilt for choice of quotable, thought-provoking moments – perhaps most poignant is closer MKVI: “Vaccinate the ones you love / Anesthesia so they can't feel you when it's time to give 'em up.”

Dupuis is not one to sum up a feeling in a word when an elaborately verbose surrealist metaphor will do. The initial silliness of her songs’ flippant references to animals, ghosts, and childhood adventures quickly falls into context – so many of these songs are about growing up too fast. It says a lot that this is the record’s most heartfelt line, from No Below: “I didn't know you when you were a kid / But swimming with you it sure feels like I did”. It at first surprised me that Dupuis was a student of masters-level poetry, but once you’re accustomed to her surface-level kookiness, it’s an album full of slow-burning wisdom. Her delivery can sometimes come across as overly verbose, but on the odd moment where she really lets loose and pushes herself, there are some moments of brilliance – her leaps into falsetto on Plough, in which she gets spooked by an “adult situation” and wonders why everyone’s “freaking the fuck out” suggest a vocal dexterity that could have been explored so much more.

Her obliqueness is equalled by the band’s guitar work – riffs full of strange juxtapositions, barely attached to key signatures, all crammed with chromatic runs and accidentals while remaining unpredictably catchy. Lead guitarist Matt Robidoux’s atonal, pedal-happy solos could have gone on much longer, suggesting a great potential avant-garde gateway.

There are probably bloggers who are subconsciously slotting Speedy Ortiz into a hipness-politics sliding scale based largely off nostalgic musical namechecks. But Sadie Dupuis is the sort of writer who’s selling chapbooks of her poetry at their shows, and they're the sort of musicians who really pay attention to making sure their songs are detailed and inventive. They’re much more worth your time than Yuck or The Pains of Being Pure at Heart or Surfer Blood or any other flash-in-the-pan throwbackers, simply because they’ve proved that they give a shit. It was just an exceptionally good time for indie-rock. You may well have to look elsewhere for music that will one day remind you of 2013, but this is still a great, brief blast of noisy, off-kilter rock; a consistent debut which sounds better each time you hear it.