Major Arcana, the debut studio album from Northampton, Massachusetts band Speedy Ortiz, wasn’t exactly a surprise success. The album was hyped and delivered on said hype, resulting in a follow-up, Foil Deer, that has both anticipation and expectations hung on it. But despite the critical success, songwriter Sadie Dupuis’ other avenues of exposure as a writer (she’s also a college-level creative writing teacher), and the band’s work as virtual road warriors as both openers and headliners, winning at the internet music game hasn’t necessarily equated into a large fanbase. For as ubiquitous as the band might seem in the blogosphere, Speedy Ortiz is still hanging onto the bottom lines on festival bills, and recognition outside their niche is still a ways off.
If you think that might affect Dupuis’ songwriting, having her inch toward the easily accessible, Foil Deer is a welcome reality check. The band, with new guitarist Devin McKnight, has stuck to its guns, delivering a refinement of past work, not a reimagining of it. Both advance singles, appearing early in this collection, stand with Major Arcana’s classic “No Below” at showcasing Speedy Ortiz as a radio-ready alternative band (if the radio still played the type of alt that flew in the early ‘90s). Still, both “Raising the Skate” and “The Graduates” are infectious, soaring and ultimately anthemic. When Dupuis exclaims to not be bossy but the boss, it’s with enough conviction to make any listener want to be master of their own fate, or as Dupuis says, “the shooter, not the shot.”
Deeper in the album, Speedy Ortiz flexes with new tricks, like the sensual, moody “Puffer,” which invokes a groove that Warpaint might write, and the upbeat, blade-sharp “Swell Content.” And even at its weakest, when the songwriting drifts a little too retro and strikes as if Kurt and Courtney made a band together, like on the plodding “Dig” and the unhinged “Homonovus,” Foil Deer never seems out of focus. Dupuis’ voice as a songwriter is growing more captivating with every release, her songs’ direction streamlined without growing predictable. In a word, the sound is maturing, and in turn, the band and the songs are better than ever.
Closer “Dvrk Wvrld” hammers this point home. Beginning with a falsetto foreshadowing of the vocals to come and a weaving of two delicate guitar lines, the song meanders, simmers, tightens the tension, and eventually pops into some of Dupuis’ most impressive bit of singing and the band’s peak in terms of drama and fulfilled expectations. Pulling off a big finish is a move that bigger and more experienced bands still struggle with, and this ambition raises Speedy Ortiz onto another plain creatively. And while Foil Deer will not likely be a commercial breakthrough, it is instead the work, and the success, of a band with different goals than increasing their festival poster font.