Major Arcana is a thankful album. Mercifully quick and sharp enough, springy enough, to hold your interest. It is an exercise in instrumental austerity that manages to sound courageous and weird without resorting to ambiance or drone. DO not expect Major Arcana to break much new ground compositionally – in fact one of its most immediately grabbing charms is the fact that the album seems to be full of the kinds of riffs and songs guitarists find themselves naturally writing as they learn the instrument. This is not meant to be an insult, as the writing itself is quite inspired, and the deliberate simplicity of the guitar playing – as well as its upfront production – is perhaps Major Arcana’s most endearing quality. This might not be an album that resonates emotionally with many of its listeners, but it is a worthwhile piece of young adult guitar rock smacked thoroughly with summery New England charm.
The invocation of spellcraft in the album’s title (a reference to the 22-card suit of the Tarot deck) feels surprisingly appropriate as well as smartly implemented. Speedy Ortiz are clever enough to know that glistening effects, otherworldly samples, and forested howls are hardly the only way – or even the most appropriate way – to represent the occult in music. Indeed, the Major Arcana’s tree-limb guitar parts and Halloween-esque basslines recall more American visions of witchcraft. The group’s New England origins show; this is an album with roots in the old world. On a song like “Gary” you can almost see the guitars creeping around a cemetery in Sleepy Hollow as lyrics flow from the window of a stately home nearby.
“Fun” is a particularly wizardly guitar romp set over by Sadie Dupuis’ vocals. In recent coverage of Speedy Ortiz tracks I have mentioned Dupuis’ singing as a particular low for me, but I have warmed up to it. Not necessarily to her style, which still smacks of the likes of Bowling For Soup, but the way its shameless radio clarity stands in such sharp contrast to its weedy, ramshackle surroundings. “Casper” seems comparable to Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins, but the song’s melodic immediacy and the ease with which the listener is allowed to approach the gates is an absolute relief. These songs waste none of your time, and Speedy Ortiz thankfully do not fall into the trap of meandering – if more sonically succulent – production tactics in order to pass for innovation.
Major Arcana is nothing more emotionally complex than the kind of suburban rock that dominates the warp tour, but the craft behind it is cleverly reminiscent while remaining firmly aware that some 90s guitar rock trends should not be resurrected. I appreciate how non-urban this whole album sounds; how the ostensible punk music could perhaps fit right in at a harvest festival in a village square. Closing track “MKVI” drags the album out through the wreck of guitars frozen in time in the early-90s that sought safe passage on pilgrims’ ships. It manages to be dank and unflattering without ever becoming boring or overwhelming – a true testament to austerity.