Minor (and that's OK) Arcana


If the Strokes - or whoever - are guilty, in their early commercial viability and ambition, of stretching the definition of ‘indie rock’ so far that the term started to signify all bands and no bands at once, then in 2013 indie critics are responsible for the opposite: in pigeonholing virtually every young startup as a neo-90s rehash or an imitator of [insert: Weezer, Beck, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, etc.], they’ve implicitly reduced this contemporary ‘indie’ scene to some kind of belated simulacrum unable on principle of transcending its own influences. That’s about as rockist as it gets - and warning enough that publications like Pitchfork are perhaps developing their own legion of unassailable elites a la Rolling Stone. I guess we’ll see when Pavement releases that hallowed reunion LP.

The newest victim (or beneficiary - depending on who pays the bills) on a list that includes the good-not-yet-great newcomers Yuck, Parquet Courts, EMA, and Cloud Nothings? That would be Speedy Ortiz, a Northampton, MA outfit - headed by the crass, fuzzy-guitar-wielding feminist Sadie Dupuis - whose debut Major Arcana is drawing comparisons to the works of crass feminist Liz Phair and fuzzy-guitar-wielding Pavement. But wait - there’s more! In just about 850 words, Lindsay Zoladz further namechecks 90s monoliths Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth spinoff Chelsea Light Moving, Archers of Loaf, and Helium.

You’d be forgiven for admitting you have no idea what this band sounds like after reading either my catalogue or Zoladz’s recipe instructions. Each ingredient is as different from the other as Speedy Ortiz could be similar to any of them - so for the sake of clarity let’s use this meme of oversignification against itself: what’re the ways Major Arcana differs sufficiently from Pavement and, oh god a new one, Sonic Youth - to these tone deaf ears the band’s two dearest influences?

Much has been made of the lead’s earlier ventures into indie bandhood - notably, her all-girls teenage cover outfit entitled Babement. Malkmus then is a logical antecedent, especially given Dupuis’ mimicry in both distorting heavily otherwise formal guitar melodies and unbalancing a lethargic undergrad’s vocal delivery with fits of bratty angst. Yet, we’re missing a few things here. In Pavement, songcraft precedes the fuzz that subsumes it. Even on the grabbag of vagaries that is Wowee Zowee, each track claims a singular and distinct melody (or snatches of one, as in ‘Serpentine Pad’) that claws its way through the swamp and defines itself. But take Major Arcana’s ‘Cash Cab’ for instance - the guitar and bass get lost in subdued bridges murked deliberately by improvisation; it’s a novelty distracting (on purpose or not) from a melody that doesn’t stand up even 2/3rds of the way through the track. And let it be noted that a drummer who struggles to keep time is not a lo-fi virtue - it is a weakness in any band (unless you’re the Beatles, then it’s adorable). All the tracks here have these or similar problems, even the gold-platted single, No Below - which turns an effectively sombre think piece into a commercial jingle when its needlessly gleeful chorus (a little different each time - mind you) comes around. The comparisons to Pavement then aren’t just iffy - they’re entirely backward: Pavement was litter atop asphalt; Speedy Ortiz is skidding on loose gravel.

Moving forward: I’m by no accounts a skilled guitar player - but’ve noted in Major Arcana some irregular tuning. It’s in this way Speedy Ortiz resembles Sonic Youth - the modern progenitors of drop tuning. I can’t identify exactly to where Dupuis and her crew drop, and suspect that’s because each song’s tuned differently. And that’s a problem. Why? Well, we can justly accuse Sonic Youth of making art for the past thirty years - and in form if not content that art resembles Picasso’s oeuvre because Sonic Youth deals in periods of color: each album comprised of slight variations of the same chord structure, and each album a different tuning. That’s how Daydream Nation get its anger, A Thousand Leaves its drug-addled haze, and NYC Ghosts & Flowers its dark horrors. On Major Arcana Dupuis sketches more like an undergrad (there’s that word again) might on a Jackson Pollock midterm: a formally inconsistent, sporadic rainbow of chords without either self-same discipline or a definitive antecedent to flip inside out.

None of this is quite to say Major Arcana is bad - it is in fact a fun, occasionally thrilling if schizophrenic start to what this listener hopes is a long career. But, positive reviews or not - comparisons to greats like Pavement and Sonic Youth do nothing more than reveal a young band’s shortcomings and, even more importantly, its innovations - a topic the critical landscape as its currently constituted discourages me from exploring with sufficient depth.