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Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana

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Artist: Speedy Ortiz

Album: Major Arcana

Label: Carpark

Review date: Aug. 7, 2013

Speedy Ortiz, the Western Massachusetts foursome fronted by Sadie Depuis, power blasts through its debut full-length with an unsettling combination of force and vulnerability. Major Arcana is simultaneously cleaner and denser than earlier EPs, its parts blistered with distortion yet easily audible as separate elements. An early 1990s fascination with wandering hooks, loud-soft shifts, disconsolate lyrics and dissonance swathed melodic hooks continues to make comparisons to Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. apt, yet the fizzy exuberance of the choruses (though buried in fuzz) is more like The Breeders. Depuis, in particular, is a volatile and fascinating performer, singing softly, sardonically, knowingly in the spaces between firewall blasts of volume, or picking her way carefully among sharp-edged, off-kilter constructions of post-rock guitar.

“Tiger Tank,” the single, is all woozy swagger, the guitar notes stretched and bent to impossible, whammied-out shapes. An inexorable guitar-bass riff runs smack into ambivalence, its final note quivering with seasick vibrato. Depuis’s voice threads through the tumult, singing elliptical self-criticisms, tentatively airing insecurities. It’s an arresting balance, the full-throttle surety of guitar rock undercut by the ambiguities and uncertainties of post rock bands like Chavez and Polvo.

Depuis voice is soft but not supine, a sharp edge of sarcasm creeping as she gets off wry, oblique phrases like “perfect marks at the sycophantic academy” and “wedding chapel exorcism under a dim lamp light” (both from “Caspar (1995)”, which may or may not be about the friendly ghost). She reaches giddily for the high, sweet choruses of “Hitch,” injecting girlish enthusiasm into the song’s lumbering, bristling riffage. Her voice is so delicate that you wonder how she doesn’t get swamped by louder passages, but it’s also distinctive enough to stand against skree and thunder. Even in quieter tracks, like “No Below,” she vibrates intensity, putting a nervy defiance behind a soft-spoken story about a loner girl’s only school friend.

The rest of Speedy Ortiz — that’s Matt Robidoux on guitar, Darl Ferm on bass and Mike Falcone on drums — have solidified nicely around Depuis. The shifts that began on the Sports EP, toward a mathier, more eccentrically structured sound, have continued. The sound, engineered by Dinosaur Jr. producer Justin Pizzoferrato, is sharp and focused, so that even the intentionally fuzzy bits (the bass, for instance) can be heard with clarity, as a distinct element in the mix. And, the band seems to have gotten more comfortable with one another. There’s not a lot of unison playing in Major Arcana, but the parts work with, against and in contrast to one another in a lot of interesting ways.

This is a significant step up for an already promising band. Speedy Ortiz may not be major yet, but they won’t be arcana for long.

By Jennifer Kelly

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