The second full-length album by Massachusetts indie rock group Speedy Ortiz, the intense, bruising Foil Deer is full of contradictions. Leader Sadie Dupuis’s vocals are soft and girlish, but with a venomous edge; she plays fiery, unwieldy, violent guitar leads that at the same time are full of overwhelming beauty; and she and her band write and play textbook indie-rock that somehow manages to be fresh and startling.
Since their first major release, 2013’s Major Arcana, the band have been accused of being a crew of copycats, supposedly ripping off 90s indie pioneers like Pavement, Built to Spill, Dutch alt-rockers Bettie Serveert and foul-mouthed lo-fi princess Liz Phair. It’s true that the band’s sound bears a striking resemblance to those acts, but there’s something in the way Speedy Ortiz combine those influences - knotty melodies and rhythms with a fierce, uncompromising femininity and genuine pop hooks - that makes Foil Deer sound like the work of no one else.
Opening the record with an enigmatic, thumping burst of noise, “Good Neck” features Dupuis warning in a soft, almost-hiss, “watch your back” and moments later she and the band erupt into lead single “Raising the Skate.” The band throw many of the established “rules” of songwriting and composition out of the window, and the effect is pleasurably disorienting. What is that extra beat before the first verse starts? What is that strange scale that makes up the song’s main riff? Where did this weird, rattling coda come from?
Once you find your footing, though, “Raising the Skate,” and many of the remainder of the songs reveal themselves to be total earworms; just witness the luscious, drifting pop of late-album highlight “My Dead Girl," which is sonically an outlier, but still meshes with the rest of the album's blown-out rock. Much of the band’s strength lies in Dupuis’ vocals and melodies, which are never overcome by the busy, complex arrangements. The resemblance to Liz Phair is uncanny at times. Like that phenomenally gifted young woman, she is a strong singer, but not a flashy one, making the most of her steady, confident alto.
The lyrics that Dupuis sings, too, are enigmatic, but highly textural in their evocation of longing, regret and anger. The chorus of “The Graduates” finds Dupuis singing with not-quite-resignation “I was the best at being second place / but now I’m just the runner up” surrounded by an instrumental bubbling with barely contained hurt and rage. The band have created a kind of sonic mise en scène that works perfectly for their disaffected youth aesthetic.
Even the more enigmatic moments, like the one-two punch of the noisy, almost scary 6/8 waltz of “Homonovus” and the oddly funky jerk of “Puffer” are aided immeasurably by the way the band’s focused and innovative interplay frame the lyrics. On this record, the band is taking far more risks than they have in the past, and it pays off.
Overall, though, this record can get a little bit tiring. It’s only 40 minutes long, but it feels as if it goes for about an hour. The splattered guitars and careening drums are charming at first, but by the time the sub-two-minute pop punk gem “Swell Content” rolls around, it feels like it should be just about time for things to wrap up.
But give it time and digest it in smaller bite-sized pieces and this is an album that you could really love. It’s very satisfying to lose yourself in the nooks and crannies of this uncompromising and frequently brilliant record, but that takes patience. Foil Deer is engaging, fascinating and actually quite original. It’s Speedy Ortiz’s best work to date, but maybe next time a little bit of restraint wouldn’t go astray.
Foil Deer is out on CD, vinyl and digitally on Friday April 24.