By Corey Beasley | 28 August 2013
When did we start thinking of guitar music as reactionary? By “guitar music,” I’m talking rock music, the kind where guitars smolder and squall, where nothing is polite, where melody and dissonance coexist in a passive-aggressive balance, like two roommates in a studio apartment. The last few years have seen a fresh crop of bands playing unfussy, straightforward guitar music—Yuck, Japandroids, Metz, Parquet Courts—and finding widespread critical acclaim. But the plaudits always come with a qualifier. These acts, so it goes, are doing something purposefully retro, either thumbing the eyes of synth revivalists and other rock ingénues of the ‘00s and ‘10s, or at the very least making a concerted effort to consciously ignore them. To some extent, it makes sense: a lot has happened in indie rock since its heyday in the ‘90s, and bands wearing influences like Pavement and Archers of Loaf on their sleeves can be easily caught in the act of looking backwards. My concern is that all this talk of ‘90s revivalism can make this music seem sterile, merely an exercise in pastiche. Good thing, then, this Speedy Ortiz record vibrates with life in every ringing harmonic and palm-muted crunch. If this is a revival, Major Arcana might be the damn fountain of youth. Drink deep.
The Loaf, Pavement, and Polvo are the clearest progenitors of the deliciously ugly guitar riffs exchanged by Sadie Dupuis and Matt Robidoux, but Dupuis’ lyrics sidestep the winkingly referential screeds of Eric Bachmann and emotive nonsense poetry of Stephen Malkmus for something much more immediately relatable. In that way, Speedy Ortiz often has more in common with the off-kilter emocore of early Cursive (fellow Chapel Hill devotees), before that band devolved into Saddle Creek histrionics. Dupuis comes armed with a pen and a Fender Jaguar both sharpened to a lethal point. When the liquid gold riff of “No Below” syncs perfectly with Dupuis’s vocal melody, the results are not at all like an inert time capsule springing up out of the millennial dirt.
“No Below” tells the story of a friendless teen, hopelessly depressed but grateful nonetheless for the one person who paid her a brief burst of attention. Over Pixies-grade start-stop dynamics, Dupuis slingshots lyrical barbs off of the track’s anthemic riffs—“You never saw me / Interred in the ice / My friend tried to melt / But he couldn’t thaw me outright,” she sings in a voice with the slightest touch of vibrato, more evocative for its restraint. Every track here has at least a few lines of the sort that would’ve sent freshman punks’ pencils scribbling excerpts on composition notebooks. Now they’ll be on Twitter or Tumblr, but the point is the same: Dupuis can hit a nerve. And her talent for cutting to the bone comes with a clean slice. There’s nothing cloying or doe-eyed about the self-flagellation of “Tiger Tank” or her choice words for an ex’s virgin-whore complex in “Plough.”
Her confessionalism hits harder with the muscle of her band behind her words, and those two tracks make good examples. “Tiger Tank” matches a line like “My mouth is a factory for every toxic part of speech I spew” with guitar work that sounds radioactive itself, chords crusted over with bile and pools of feedback unfurling here and there like industrial sludge. “Plough” shapeshifts from the bristling angularity of its opening moments to one of the record’s most immediate hooks by the time Dupuis comes to the matter-of-fact sentiment of its chorus: “You picked a virgin over me.” Elsewhere, hypnotic harmonics and groove of opener “Pioneer Spine,” the supercharged power-pop of “Fun,” and the beautifully sprawling mess of closer “MKVI” prove how Speedy Ortiz can pack an impressive range of sounds in a deceptively simple package. Somewhere, a freshman is saving up for that Gibson SG in the pawnshop window while they work on wearing out their copy of this record.