Bathed in a green haze, the crowd oozed to the mutant rock and roll roaring from the basement's dusty depths — everything and everyone was sweaty and sticky. But as Speedy Ortiz crammed into the back corner, their grins just inches away from ours, D.C.’s Dougout became a moshed-and-sloshed sauna of 20-somethings delirious on rock euphoria.
After spending much of the new millennium bored out of my skull by network soap indie, Speedy Ortiz — not to mention its pals in Pile, Ovlov, Grass is Green and the rest of New England’s burgeoning basement scene — was rock's wild howl. The songs were unpredictable, yet weirdly memorable, swaggering with a winky and wry sense of self. Riffs would twist with a topsy tenderness, then slam a ruptured discord. Sadie Dupuis' sphinxian-yet-sensitive lyrics were not only matched but accentuated by her coil-sprung vibrato. How could Speedy Ortiz not immediately become my new favorite band?
What began as a short-lived solo project recorded in Dupuis' off-hours as a rock camp counselor became a four-piece band in Northampton, Mass., by the end of 2011: Dupuis on guitar and vocals with drummer Mike Falcone, bassist Darl Ferm and guitarist Matt Robidoux. They made cool mixtapes, cracked inside jokes and gushed about teenagers that opened for them on tour. They freaked out (via LiveJournal) when they met the bassist from Polvo or Helium's Mary Timony, but also rolled their eyes at '90s indie-rock comparisons. The band's first single — the gender-bending got-laid grunge yowler "Taylor Swift'' — elicited that rare response of the simultaneous giggle and headbang. The Sports EP amped up the taut yet rubbery riffery.
Released July 9, 2013, Major Arcana is filled with wedding chapel exorcisms, oiled-down attractants and criminally twisted puny little villains — this is Dupuis' haunted lexicon as she scales the toxic Aggro Crag of a breakup. And while Dupuis wrote these songs, the band's convulsing arrangements and diverse influences sprawled the squigglier edges of feedbacked fuzz to mete out matters of the heart. Falcone — who, it's worth noting, has a knack for vocal harmony — swung as much as he smashed the drums. In easily tipoverable songs, Ferm's burly bass and percussive overdubs gave the unruly glee its momentum. Robidoux ripped skronky guitar solos and countered Dupuis' riffs with decorative splatter. Over a four-day marathon session at Sonelab in Easthampton, recording engineer Justin Pizzoferrato sparked the studio imagination of Speedy Ortiz — not only leaning into gritty tones but layer-caking dense dynamics that made these songs pop and pulverize.
For all her sweet-toothed seething, Dupuis was not easy on herself. Everyone's allowed the idiot growing pains of your 20s and the misery that follows, but I can only imagine the emotional exhaustion that playing these songs on the road, night after night, must have wrought. "But you left something on my lips: a mark so sick," she repeats over the doomy destruction that ends the album. Thinking back to the many Speedy Ortiz shows I caught in those early years, including an unofficial after-after party for my own wedding, "MKVI" often served as the noisy down-and-out closer — heads would bang in solidarity as the crowd became co-authors in the chaos, the biting phrase now a hex, Speedy Ortiz forever our coven. —Lars Gotrich
To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Major Arcana, Speedy Ortiz will release a remastered edition, out November 17th, 2023 on Carpark Records.