February 12, 2014

Test Spin: Real Hair, Speedy Ortiz

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Even though Major Arcana was lauded by critics upon its release last summer, it was not until a few months ago that the alternative music fans finally recognized the genius of Speedy Ortiz’s debut LP. Clearly influenced by the greats of ‘90s indie rock, Sadie Dupuis’s guitar-driven project alternates effortlessly between delightfully wonky verses and brash riffs. Speedy Ortiz’s latest effort, Real Hair, stays very close to its roots as the four track, 13 minute EP further solidifies the Northampton, MA-based group’s increasingly distinctive sonic niche.

While Real Hair is unmistakably a Speedy Ortiz record, it’s a little hard to put a finger on what exactly that entails. On “Oxygal,” the band’s guitars create a mopey brush of flat and sharp quarter notes. Although they do the same on the intro of “American Horror,” they then launch into a harder, Dinosaur Jr.-style rage. Each note is an exercise in calculated sloppiness, with fuzz seeping into every knotty nook and cranny. Dupuis’s vocal work doesn’t merely keep up with these shifts; rather, she drives them. She talk-sings directly and frankly over the jangly, winding verses but can bare her teeth and wail over the equally gnarly distortion-soaked choruses. Even within these macro distinctions, Speedy Ortiz tinkers with various shades of dark musical tropes. “Shine Theory,” the EP’s final track, is austere and bleak, while the opener is bitter and angry. Although to the uninitiated this may seem like just a hand-picked salad of ‘90s indie elements, the result is much grander than the sum of its parts. Sure, Generic 1993 College Town Band could have fiddled with all these components, but Speedy Ortiz fuses them into a readily adaptable emotional curve that is uniquely and identifiably their own.

As sonically packed as Real Hair is, its lyrics challenge the arrangement in density. Very little of the album’s runtime goes unoccupied by lyrics, and for good reason: Sadie Dupuis loves playing with words, and as a current poetry MFA candidate, she certainly has a right to. While other such wordy groups tend to end up with laughably opaque narratives (see: R.E.M.), Speedy Ortiz’s circular lyrics portray sadness with unprecedented degrees of both clarity and playfulness. Dupuis sets such hypercritical lenses on the world as describing “the pretty waiter from the restaurant” as “a cartoon of every trope the trophy world’s designed to want.” At its root, though, Real Hair is a chronicle of comically failed relationships, and Dupuis approaches this with a refreshingly honest brand of self-awareness. Describing her propensity to push people away, she sings, “‘Cause my heart looks in on itself and any friend’s a stagehand at best to help along the play.” She makes this level of introspection possible by treating her songs like metaphor-filled heart-to-hearts with the audience. While her sincerity is real and tangible, she tosses in allusions to unknown anecdotes and inside jokes that can blur the narratives. The exact plots of her storytelling might be lost, but the emotion behind them comes through loud and clear.

The tangly musicianship and literary lyrics make Real Hair a very mental exercise, just like Major Arcana. Real Hair is definitely more of the same, but is that a bad thing? On one hand, Major Arcana was an incredible album. But moreover, these four tracks are a welcome addition to Speedy Ortiz’s increasingly idiosyncratic discography since their diverse lyrics and varied song structure make each track a new adventure, even if new ground isn’t explicitly broken. Real Hair is whetting our appetite for Speedy Ortiz’s trajectory; they seem to be establishing a distinct sound without constructing a creative box. This path is certainly exciting, but we’ll have to wait for the band’s next LP to see if it’s actually sustainable.