by Calley Nelson
To end their SXSW set this year, Speedy Ortiz invited comedian Hannibal Buress on stage to guest star on drums for “MKVI”. Once lead-singer Sadie Dupuis introduced him, he gave thanks to the band for letting him ruin their last song. “If you fuck it up we’re not going to be discovered this year, so…” Sadie trailed off, and with trepidation Buress patted the drum set, eventually settling on the kick drum somewhere in the middle of the song. With unconventional vocals, poetics, syncopation and constant riff-wars, Speedy Ortiz is never dry and their live sets never drag. It’s a quality that carries over to Foil Deer, the band’s newest album.
“Good Neck” begins the album stuffed with disjointed guitars — reminiscent of Sonic Youth (another band with ties to Northampton, MA) — folding into a brief reprieve from the ruckus as Dupuis sings: “got a lack of woe / I’ve known you not so very long, but watch your back, because baby’s so good with a blade.” Dupuis was once in a Pavement cover band called “babement”, and the Stephen Malkmus-esque inflection in her vocals is undeniable. “The Graduates” is a slower song about not quite being good enough in school, in relationships — or much of anything, really. It explores what it means to be a reject kid, while “Raising the Skate” is its antithesis — Dupuis is not just bossy, she’s the boss. It’s strange to place these two songs, so tonally different, together on the same record, but it actually sets up the contradiction and the experimentation that arises throughout the rest of the album, where the band balances pretending not to care while caring too much. Instrumentally stimulating, “Dot X” employs clean guitars on top of distorted ones and a thumping bass, while elsewhere, the shrill synth that screams in “Homonovous” commands the listener’s attention.
Much of Speedy Ortiz’s work is loud, intricate and exciting. “Puffer” evokes early 2000s indie pop, but with more minor synths and industrial leanings. It sounds a little like No Doubt’s “Hella Good” but with deeper bass riffs and the scratching wail of a guitar. It’s a song almost made to be placed in a video game or some movie’s action set-piece. “My Dead Girl” is defined by its narrative and its Nirvana-like quality. Dupuis plumbs complex emotional questions: when she’s not in control, her significant other finds her more desirable, exploring a “nice guy vs hero” complex and ultimately questioning if they’re really so different: “I go riding in cars but I’m not the driver/ Riding in cars, now I’m the dead girl you wanted.” “Ginger” is another entry about being the outcast at a party, watching everyone get wasted. It’s clear here how self aware Speedy Ortiz is, and they’re able to appeal to a generation who feels like they may be wasted in one form or another, either watching their friends follow their ambitions or watching them drown. Speedy Ortiz seems to feel like they’re doing both: “You can’t swim if you can’t dive / I wanna cannonball and kill your time.”
This is one of the most diverse, entertaining and inspiring albums I’ve heard in a long, long time. Every arrangement and fragment provides movement to the album’s greater statement, exploring the insecurities of a generation and the front that people feel they must put on to tough through moments of self-consciousness and weakness. Foil Deer is experimental and haunting, an album gripped by conflict.