Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer

by Ethan Ranis Rating:8 Release Date:2015-04-20

Sophomore albums are traditionally a tricky proposition. With less time to prepare, bands have to balance the need to capitalize on their earlier successes without offering a simple retread of the same. Maintaining that balance is what separates More Songs About Buildings and Food from, say, Room on Fire. Speedy Ortiz had already claimed a rightful spot near the top of the 20-year-nostalgia cycle with the DIY alterna-punk of Major Arcana, but the question remained of how they would follow up. 

The answer is an album that could fit comfortably with some of the peaks of the 90s alternative nation, with its guitar-laden grunge and loud-quiet-loud dynamics. A number of the songs here would sound perfect in the background of Buffy the Vampire Slayer nightclub The Bronze. It’s easy to imagine Speedy Ortiz opening up for The Breeders circa 'Cannonball' (and, let’s face it, probably blowing them out of the water). At first blush, this isn’t new territory for the band, but just beneath the surface there are some notable changes.

So what’s new this time? Well, there’s an actual recording budget. Check the conspicuous reverb on the vocals of lead single ‘Raising the Skate’ or the whirring keyboard overdubs filling in the background of ‘The Graduates’. 

The guitar skronk is still there in spades, but more carefully manicured, panned-off to the sides or back of the mix to leave more room for the vocals and drums. There’s more attention being paid to dynamics, and it sounds more professional than anything the band has previously released. 

To go with this extra polish is a mood that trades Major Arcana’s confessionals for something more ominous. Opener ‘Good Neck’ fades into the middle of a ferocious jam session, but ends with a near-whispered warning to “watch your back”. ‘Dot X’’s chorus grimly admonishes the listener: ‘Don’t ever touch my ring/ You fool/ You’ll be cursed for a lifetime.’ And ‘Homonovus’ brings the horror outright, with quiet verses exploding into choruses full of screeching feedback that could easily be mistaken for screaming. 

Closer ‘Dvrk Wvrld’s maybe-overdose dirge leaves the album on a cold, despairing note. On these songs, the ‘American Horror’ that previously lurked in the song titles of EP Real Hair is coming through in the sonics as well as the lyrics. 

The band also show their math-rock side a bit more, perhaps in homage to acknowledged influence Polvo. The time signature shifts on ‘Zig’ and ‘Ginger’ seem a bit self-conscious, and as a result less successful than the tracks where the band obviously feels more comfortable. Some of this album feels caught in transition, with some of the bigger sonic leaps, such as the sinuous, bass-led groove of ‘Puffer’, running up against straightforward pop-punk like ‘Swell Content’. There are two possible avenues for progression here, and Speedy Ortiz may be reluctant to pick one and stick with it.

The band’s strongest suit and focal point, frontwoman Sadie Dupuis’s lyrics, are still in fine form.  There are a few moments where she lets her literati flag fly a bit too high and verges on showing off; on one track she rhymes “bastardize” with “cauterize”, and references to “hypnic jerks” might have listeners running to Google for answers. Thankfully, she can still balance this with a killer one-liner, like “Is it getting old sealing all your kisses with poison”, or “Brain like a sphinx but got nails like a prom queen.” 

Dupuis takes a more overtly feminist bent on several of the tracks here. On ‘Raising the Skate’, she defiantly snarls: “I’m not bossy/ I’m the boss.” But she’s angry at gender roles in all their forms, dropping to a hushed mutter on ‘Mister Difficult’ to practically spit: “Still I got the message/ Boys be sensitive and girls/ be aggressive.” 

These impulses and the album’s overriding themes are perhaps most finely balanced in standout track ‘My Dead Girl’, where Dupuis doubles herself in both her normal range and falsetto to chilling effect: “I go riding in cars/ but I’m not the driver/ Riding in cars/ More like the dead girl you wanted.”  The angst at the passivity on display here bleeds through in the minor-key-but-melodic guitars and eventually finds release in crashing drums. 

The track signals a potential way forward, one that reconciles the band’s conflicting instincts toward pop accessibility and jagged experimentation. Here’s hoping they can continue to hit that bittersweet balance in the future.

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