Review: Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana

A 90's Liz Phair fan reviews Speedy Ortiz's excellent debut, Major Arcana.

opinion byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER

Speedy Ortiz front woman Sadie Dupuis seems hell bent on flaunting a subversive, glass half full attitude. “I’m getting my dick sucked on the regular,” she proclaims on “Fun”, one of several standout tracks from the band’s excellent debut, Major Arcana. It’s the kind of vulgar, self-consciously assured gender exploration that Liz Phair perfected – and abandoned – and it’s as if Dupuis is announcing to the world that while most indie female alt-rock icons of the 90s have moved on to over-produced pastures, there’s still plenty of green grass on the grungy, lo-fi side of the fence. With the arrival of Speedy Ortiz, we can finally give up on that long-awaited Phair return to form that, let’s face it, was never going to happen anyway.

Album opener “Pioneer Spine” is a glimpse into what listeners can expect across 10 tightly focused songs, five of which play less than 3 minutes. Dupuis’ and Matt Robidoux’s guitars vacillate between loud and soft, clean and waves of distortion, and their playing generally foreshadows or mimics a gorgeous melody. Darl Ferm’s heavy, unfiltered bass along with drummer Mike Falcone’s explosive beats add muscle to Dupuis’ fragile yet distinctive voice and poetic lyrics (“Now absolute the zero count. Zero morphism, its arrowed frame.”). Speedy Ortiz has existed as a band only since 2012, and their infancy makes it all the more impressive that most of these loose songs hold together when they often feel on the verge of crumbling into chaos. Only one track on Major Arcana, the horribly titled and horribly dull “Gary” doesn’t stand up to the rest of the album’s high standards.

The star here is Dupuis. Her lyrics and delivery are nearly flawless. On “Tiger Tank,” a grinding rocker full of fuzzy guitars and bravado, she spouts confident nuggets straight out of the “How to Write a Liz Phair Song” manual – “Don’t even care if they take my legs, I’ve limped before I could limp again. Though my limp is not able to display how very awfully I’m doing.” On the waltz-y “No Below”, the story of a death-obsessed teen opens with an anecdote about a broken knee in high school as a metaphor for two people who’ve limped through life to find each other: “Well everything fucked up, we both felt before, I’m glad for it all if it got us where we are.” It’s a beautiful song that, in lesser hands, would have been unbearable sap. But Dupuis’ words are equal turns oblique [“Windows sweating blood, choking in on cue” from Casper (1995)] and blunt (“Why’d you pick a virgin over me?” from “Plough”).

To be clear, Speedy Ortiz aren’t a Liz Phair rip-off nor are they a 90s pastiche – they wear their influences proudly and write what they know, which is why it works. Dupuis got her start as part of an all-female Pavement cover band, and sonically the album owes more to Stephen Malkmus, Helium and The Breeders than Phair. Major Arcana’s best track, album closer “MKVI” is the band’s attempt to prove that they are more than their influences: it’s a thrilling, confident seven minutes of self-deprecation, sumptuous wordplay and rock guitars that simultaneously feels like your favorite song and something unrecognizably fresh.

Musically speaking, Major Arcana solves a major problem. Let’s mind travel back to June 24, 2003 – the day Liz Phair jumped ship on her edgy, lo-fi indie sound to set sail on what was destined to become the Titanic of naughty-sugar-pop reinventions. The community that once idolized her not only stole her life jacket but also held her head under water until she stopped. Just, stopped. Oddly enough, threads of those hyper-poppy sounds her fans once vilified now pulse through indie-approved acts from Icona Pop to CHVRCHES to Nine Inch Nails. (Seriously, have you heard “Everything”?) In mainstream indie, there’s nothing like early Liz Phair today, which is why bands like The Breeders are back on the touring circuit. There’s a consumer appetite. Circa 2003 – the year of Phair bludgeoning – who could have imagined that just 10 years later new music from Rihanna, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West would share equal space on the indie-webs with word of a new Arcade Fire album? Talk about blurred lines.

It may have taken 10 years, but Speedy Ortiz finally solve the seemingly obvious riddle as to why Liz Phair became the Lando Calrissian of music for abandoning the raw, honest songs of her youth. It’s not just because she was a sell-out – even credible bands sell out these days. It’s because she traded in grungy lo-fi “Girly Sounds” for polished crap, and singlehandedly killed the indie grrrrl rock sound of the 90s – when she went pop there was nobody there to take her place. The 10 tracks that comprise Major Arcana reanimate a dead era, and in doing so make us feel young and alive again, and not in a trashy-and-drunk Ke$ha sort of way. As Speedy Ortiz prove here, sometimes it takes insightful, clever and slightly juvenile truths built upon a wall of screeching, occasionally discordant pop to have a good time. Who knows if age will be as harsh on Speedy Ortiz as it was on Phair, but for now it’s all fun, all the time. [B+]