Intricate, gnarled and unabashedly in love with ’90s indie rock, Speedy Ortiz’s “Major Arcana” is one of the year’s most engaging electric guitar records. At Comet Ping Pong on Sunday night, the Massachusetts quartet (mostly) delivered on the excitement (and promise) of the recording, playing a confident and careening show to a small but enthusiastic crowd.
Ortiz is the brainchild of singer, guitarist and songwriter Sadie Dupuis, an MFA poetry candidate and teacher (of a freshman writing and composition class) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. There are plenty of thought-provoking couplets in the lyrics of songs such as “Plough” and “Hitch,” but the sound mix Sunday left her vocals bobbing in a sea of crashing guitars and drums, only occasionally surfacing and cascading over the room.
That was just fine, though, because the physical impact of the music was enough to make words feel like a luxury through most of the 30-minute-plus set. Drummer Mike Falcone was mightily impressive, delivering a hard kick that injected a frenzy not evident on the band’s studio recordings. Bassist Darl Ferm lashed away at riffs that held everything together like a crooked, exposed backbone. But the real action took place on either side of the stage, as Matt Robidoux’s muscular riffing tangled with Dupuis’s serpentine lines to dizzying effect, releasing all sorts of mid-1990s spirits.
One prominent influence on songs such as “Tiger Tank” and “MKVI” is D.C. native Mary Timony, whose work with Helium and short-lived quartet Autoclave was clearly identifiable in the stop-and-go riffs and the tendril-like vocal lines. There was some early Liz Phair in Dupuis’s coy singing, as well as the desperate emotional roar of Sebadoh in the band’s full-frontal lunges. But picking out the indie-rock influences in Dupuis’s work really isn’t the main point — after all, anyone who participated in a Pavement cover band called Babement has little to hide.
What mattered most was the band members’ full immersion into their songs, hurling themselves around and into the task — Robidoux took a couple of feedback-elicting rides into the crowd on one audience member’s shoulders — like it really was 1993. And they really were doing a job that they were totally committed to. Even a couple of Dupuis’s lesser songs — the over-praised “No Below,” for example — came across as toothy and tactile, the rough edges created by the band’s messy-but-mighty rumble giving them some much-needed spine.
And even better: It is clear that Dupuis has found a set of musicians who can do more than perform her songs. She has found a group that makes them live and breathe. And that not only made a Sunday night journey into upper Northwest well worth it, it recast Speedy Ortiz as the vehicle that could lead an actually worthwhile ’90s revival zooming far into the current decade.
Foster is a freelance writer.