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Speedy Ortiz, ‘Major Arcana’ – Album Review

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Speedy Ortiz’s recent support from NPR and the wave of positive reviews they’ll undoubtedly receive for ‘Major Arcana,’ their debut LP, should start to turn heads, as the album is a faithful and generalized portrait of guitar rock from the 90′s.

Criticisms are also easy to predict, as its lack of originality is bound to disappoint some listeners. But this is ultimately forgivable, since ‘Major Arcana’ isn’t derivative of any single source.

On opener ‘Pioneer Spine,’ Speedy Ortiz lay out their sound as sort of an arm-wrestling match between the alternative hits of the ’90s and the beloved college rock of the period. Through Speedy’s eyes, there is not as big of a gap between the Breeders and Our Lady Peace as many would hold, though its unlikely the band, or their marketing team, would want to admit this. The vocal quirks heard on the choruses evoke the pop sensibility of the latter, but the unpredictable rhythmic shifts, feedback howls and prevailing sense that the guitars are just a little out of tune keep ‘Major Arcana’ from sounding like anything you’d have heard on the radio back in the day — or that you’d hear today, for that matter.

Speedy Ortiz position a waltz, clearly the album’s standout, right at the center of ‘Major Arcana,’ and the whirlpool of beauty and attitude does what the rest of the album needs it to — it gives them an identity. On most songs, Speedy Ortiz could be described as a female-fronted Cymbals Eat Guitars, as the record shares much in common with the under-appreciated Cymbals album ‘Lenses Alien.’

Still, with lyrics that read as a blend of middle-finger anger and shrugging apathy, Speedy Ortiz prove that a general lack of originality does not mean a lack of personality. Singer Sadie Dupuis’ delivery of “freaking the f— out” on the terrific ‘Plough,’ or the falsetto tic she employs on the line “I got nothing” on the muscular, noisy finale ‘MKVI,’ make a case for Speedy Ortiz deserving a place alongside their heroes of ’90s-era Matador and Merge Records.

Hopefully, there’s an audience for this beyond college-town DIY living room shows, but Sonic Youth played their share of homes before the ’90s provided a fertile environment for difficult melodies and gravely distortion. With luck, bands like Speedy Ortiz will enjoy a similar cultural moment.

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