Major Arcana, the first full-length from Massachusetts indie-rock outfit Speedy Ortiz, proudly bears its influences—the clean guitars of Liz Phair, the dirty ones of Sonic Youth and Pavement—but dwelling on those touchstones distracts from the record’s fervent drive to unsettle and have fun in novel ways.
Opener “Pioneer Spine” gives listeners an idea of what they’re in for: The song’s verses are dark and swirling, like a tornado gaining speed. Sure enough, the chorus crashes down in a blur of distortion, with guitarist/vocalist Sadie Dupuis singing interrogation lines (“I want a name / Just mouth it, that’s fine”) in a fierce, buzzy style. The song is something of a litmus test for potential listeners: Those who like its menacing feel and sense of delayed gratification will love the rest of Major Arcana, an insanely enjoyable exercise in tension and release.
The tension-release ratio varies from song to song. In “Casper (1995),” Dupuis sings about demon-hunting while a tangle of guitars build and climb, reaching for the heightened chorus that features Dupuis singing background like an unleashed spirit seeking vengeance. Her lyrics, blank verse with horror-movie imagery (“Windows sweating blood, choking in on cue”), deepen the creeping discomfort.
By contrast, the tightly wound “Fun” is more explosion than fuse; its quiet intro snaps into a Strokes-like hum, followed by a streak of fuzzed-out guitars and lyrics about semi-regular fellatio. The mix may sound chaotic, but the song, like the rest of Major Arcana, is whip-smart and focused.
On the record’s centerpiece, the gorgeous waltz “No Below,” the quiet/loud ratio is perfectly balanced. The song begins with Dupuis’ shaky voice and a warbling guitar, and its catchy melody stands in contrast to the dark, fuzzy undercurrent provided by bassist Darl Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone. Dupuis and co-guitarist Matt Robidoux trade crunchy riffs as the storminess builds to a screechy, gloriously unhinged conclusion. That indelible melody, however, never gets lost in the mess; the members of Speedy Ortiz not only know how to write and play, they know how to arrange.
Just as these seemingly messy songs adhere in unexpected ways, a few others don’t entirely hold together. Nonetheless, Major Arcana is a markedly assured debut, one that makes Speedy Ortiz an act to watch. Like its songs, the band’s detonation is inevitable.