opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN
Speedy Ortiz are masters of the non-sequitur, of subterfuge, of double-take. On Last.fm and in most critical reviews, they’ve been tagged “slacker rock” – perhaps because of frontwoman, guitarist, and poetry MFA Sadie Dupuis’s lyrical obsession with competitions, sports, winners, and losers; perhaps to link them to the kind of potheaded, shambling 1990s alt-rock they liberally lift from. While that pejorative misrepresents them – as it did a whole generation of smart, nervy, tightly-wound indie rockers they resemble, from Archers of Loaf to Pixies – it’s also understandable. Speedy Ortiz’s songs are loose-screwed and limber, Darl Ferm’s basslines constantly finding and then losing a groove and sort-of searching for another. Sometimes Speedy Ortiz seriously jam in the tradition of oft-cited forebears and fellow Massachusetts residents like Dinosaur Jr, and it’s not hard to catch them meandering desultorily through a labyrinth of their own making, stringing together songs on the fly. Dupuis’s lyrics, more integral to Speedy Ortiz’s sound than many rock bands’ lyrics, are a scrappy collage of poetic wordplay, obscure references, personal memories (usually from high school), mundane narratives, wacked-out sci-fi/fantasy-isms, and jokes (some accessible, some insider) – a formula that has the feeling of being guided by association more than anything else. On the best song from Speedy Ortiz’s 2013 full-band break-through Major Arcana (it had previously been a Dupuis solo act), “No Below,” Dupuis makes blanket statements about feeling isolated during adolescence and then immediately qualifies them as if the exception to the stated rule has only just occurred to her: “Spent the summer on crutches, and everybody teased – except for this one friend, I almost forgot….”
But of course, it’s all a ruse. Speedy Ortiz aren’t slackers, but they’ll pretend to be in order to rope you in just so they can pull the rug out from under you. When you get back up they’ll be laughing in your face and patting you on the shoulder at the same time. They’ll throw curveballs when you’re expecting a noncommittal underhand, and vice-versa. Good-natured but mischievous as hell, they’re the smartest kids in the room, and their supposed laziness or aimlessness is a cover for the many traps they can hardly wait to spring. “We were the French Club dropouts,” reminisces Dupuis on Foil Deer single “The Graduates,” and that word “dropouts” totally does its work, distracting from the fact that unlike high school at large, one has to enroll in French Club to drop out. Later, they’re “the law school rejects,” and again, one has to want to go to law school in the first place, apply, and sit the LSAT before one can be rejected, suggesting greater reserves of intelligence and drive than the surface-level self-deprecation of these lines suggests. A much better indicator of the sort of people we’re dealing with in Speedy Ortiz is this one, from “Dot X”: “Don’t ever touch my blade, you fool, you’ll be cursed for a lifetime.” Or, even better still, the pulverizing, Jaws-biting, post-Sheryl Sandberg hook to the anthemic “Raising The Skate," where Dupuis sneers: “I’m not / bossy, I’m the boss, / shooter, not the shot, / on the tip and fit to execute. / I’m chief, / not the overthrown, / captain, not a crony, / so if you wanna row, you better have an awfully big / boat.”
Applied to Speedy Ortiz, this line might go: “It’s not tangled, it’s a knot.” Dupuis and her three bandmates – Ferm, lead guitarist Devin McKnight, and drummer Mike Falcone, all of them just as enormously talented as Dupuis – are tapped into the internal logic of these songs even if the audience remains shut out of it. What seems random is in fact ordered, and what seems wild is in fact controlled, so the fun of Speedy Ortiz – and believe me, they’re fun – is being along for the ride and having legitimately no idea of where it’s going or how it’ll get there. The guitars zig and zag erratically, now cohering into harmony and now clashing in scribbles of dissonance; the rhythm section likewise alternates between steady grooves and sudden, jerky fuss. Sometimes – and this happens more often on the more pop-smart Foil Deer than previously – Speedy Ortiz will tighten abruptly and snap into laser focus, and when they do, they’re uncommonly dangerous-sounding: “Homonovus” congeals halfway through into a seizure of screeching guitars, the hardest-rocking moment in the band’s whole catalog. Listening to the violent lurching of “Homonovus” is punishing, seasickening, and wholly satisfying experience. The band is getting better not only at structuring these kinds of twists into their songwriting, but also at executing them.
This is the primary update to the band’s sound since 2014 EP Real Hair, itself a promising leap from the very good Major Arcana. The band’s strengths are all the same, but they’ve been developed, and their focus seems to have stabilized and sharpened. This goes for Dupuis’s uniformly excellent lyrics, too, which tell more coherent, if obstinately mysterious, stories (“My Dead Girl”) and concentrate on a few thematic loci – namely, the determination to “win” and the introspective challenges of repeatedly failing to achieve – even if there’s nothing here quite as heartstopping and ambitious as “No Below” (will there ever be?). There are some more blatant sophomore-album motions, too: genre exercises in sleazy grunge (seething, venomous “Puffer”) and early-aughts pop-punk (“Swell Content”), the addition of new instruments and techniques (the beautiful vocal harmonies on “My Dead Girl”; the golden, glowing synthesizers adorning standout “The Graduates”). These exploratory measures are successful, but they’re beside the point, since Speedy Ortiz don’t need to change things up to make their music more interesting – they’re already one of the most compellingly odd acts making rock in 2015. B+