Sometimes, a little boy has to wander very far from home before he realizes he’s lost…
Speedy Ortiz, Foiled Again (Which explains a double-dip.)
The Gateway Drug
“Death Note,” I have no actual idea what this song’s about…I only know I love it.
To clarify the note above, it turns out that I know most of “Death Note’s” lyrics; it’s more that I don’t entirely know how to parse them. And, yes, I do think it’s significant that I keep typing “Love Letters” for the song title, and not “Death Note.” If nothing else, that little piece of confusion feels intentional, even central…still, I don’t think I’ll ever puzzle out the actual meaning of “these kids grow so fast/free passes don’t count for much anymore.”
To draw out the implications from the space above, this is just a good song in musical terms – great contrasts between the soaring vocals/guitar under the verses and the jerking/almost rock-kick guitar in the fills between verse and chorus; the rhythm section plays from the same sheet (I know; duh), and it has the effect of knocking the song off-stride…but it takes only a tic or two to right itself. If there’s a narrative to thing, it walks side-by-side with self-confidence. And those verses and choruses: very earworm-y. Unless you hate it, you will sing this song after hearing it.
Finally, vocal arrangements translate as very poetic – i.e., syllables and entire words break bars in a way, 1) that has a lot of fun with emphasis (even if, again, the ultimate meaning eludes); and 2) that makes the song really hard to sing along with at first. So…crap, if that doesn’t leave the end of the paragraph a bit misplaced – except for people of the disposition to love that kind of word/sound play enough to learn the timing. People like me.
Anyway, “Death Note” climbs the Pantheon of songs I’ve loved this year. It’s probably at God’s right elbow and heading toward the right hand by now.
As it happens, “Death Note” shows up on…an EP, and collection of singles (what are four songs?) titled Foiled Again, the 2016 follow-up/play on their 2015 full album, Foil Deer. Of which, Pitchfork ran a short (mysterious*) review of Foil Deer that happened to include a promotional comic that christens the album in a mythological context. Which is nicely ballsy.
(* Frontwoman/great big brain Sadie Dupuis said the following about…everything: “Listening to our old records, I get the sense that I was putting myself in horrible situations just to write sad songs.” There’s more to the quote, but, damn, if that doesn’t that kick off an itch to listen to the rest of their stuff. Also of note: that quote, in full, eats about a third of that review…mysteries remain, ones I’m not about to clear up either)
Wikipedia’s entry linked to another, longer, (much earlier) interview – another one from Pitchfork – that ran some possible influences past Speedy Ortiz as a whole (OK, names: Mike Falcone (drums), Darl Ferm (bass), and…Andy Molholt (who, apparently replaced the Matt Robidoux whose name appears in the, sigh…interview article/timeline I’m currently discussing)), and they coughed up at least one super-obvious predecessor: the inimitable Liz Phair (big fan over here, so…). They also mentioned Pavement/Steve Malkmus (which really digs at my (fucking) lazy habit of comparing bands with female vocalists/members to others of the same, rough construction), but the band members went on to volunteer a bunch of their own including: Unwound (who I simply don’t know), Sebadoh (yep), The Minutemen and (holy shit, YES) Dinosaur Jr. Speedy Ortiz can do a helluva lot without a guitar – more on that later - but, between the vocal/attitude echoes of Liz Phair and the guitar echoes of Dinosaur Jr., Speedy Ortiz was destined to slide right inside my personal wheelhouse (and deep, so deep). Better still, they put more than enough spin on those echoes to stand as something rare and encouraging. Take from that last adjective what you wanna.
To start with Foiled Again, I’ll float the personal theory that they got so excited about “Death Note” and “Emma O” – two great songs – that they couldn’t wait on writing a full album to get those beauties out into the world. Between the relative world apart of those two songs, Speedy Ortiz filled those with two remixes of a track off Foil Deer – “Puffer” is the track, and one remix comes from Lazerbeak (ft. Lizzo…don’t know either), and another by site-favorite Open Mike Eagle…which requires the site break from fandom/confession that I prefer the Lazerbeak remix. Full disclosure: it’s not even close…
“Puffer” opens onto Foil Deer nicely. Because, per New to Me protocol, I listened to Foiled Again first…only to decide against reviewing a paltry four songs; both you and I deserve better. Back to the song, you can absolutely pick out the tune (or just the structure for the lyrics) from the remixes that introduced you (or just me) to the song, but two things stand out: 1) at least one remix improves on the original (if I had to rank, it’d be Lazerbeak at the top, with Open Mike Eagle’s track duking it out with the original in the cellar); 2) “Puffer” sounds nothing like…fuck it, I don’t need to name any specific song; Speedy Ortiz has nailed the wonderful art of having “a sound,” while finding tons of space within it in which to play.
I have this instinct to reach for specific compare/contrast example, but that over-simplifies a distinction that bears remaining distinct: “Raising the Skate” sounds/feels different from “My Dead Girl,” sounds/feels different from “Swell Content,” sounds/feels different from “Homonovus.” Speedy Ortiz does amazing work with the palette on hand, and I haven’t even mentioned a personal, second-to-fourth (to-fifth) favorite, “Dot X,” a songs of reasonable narrative ambition (and I see that shirt, Ferm, in the live video), and, against the heavier noise of, say, “Raising the Skate” and some passages in “Homonovus,” a delicate piece of music…
…then again, I’m hanging off the crest in the song’s middle (I think exactly at the 2:00 mark), which feels lousy with dramatic/musical tensions (and volume; is that engineering, or something else?), and now I’m back on celebrating the narrative. And, while I'm here, I was just reminded of "The Graduates," a song worth including if only for the lyric, "I was the best at being second place/but now I'm just the runner-up." Moreover, how different does "Dot X" sound than, say, "My Dead Girl." (Personal note: "My Dead Girl" listens prettier.)
I’m happy to leave this post as one of my shorter ones. Foiled Again/Foil Deer (oh, the latter title comes out of “Dot X,” btw) are worth any…shit, I need a vocabulary for this kind of thing…or would that just ruin it? Speedy Ortiz, to me, ranks high in a group of bands that compose very deliberately and complexly, while still holding onto a clear “pop” sensibility. They’re up there with Menomena, Open Mike Eagle, even Elvis Costello, when it comes to raw musical talent/sensibility.
It only now occurs to me that I’m getting deep enough in all this – I mean, between Bins and New to Me, and all the other stuff – where it gets easy to lose track of metrics personal or otherwise. By that I mean the entire premise of who all the acts I love more or less dearly stack up in estimation, reputation, what have you. (Moreover, the underlying premise of the Bins stuff – e.g., these are all bands I liked enough to pick them up/pay for them – only muddies those metrics more). I guess I’d counter that impulse by defaulting to something natural: why the hell do I have to rank anything, never mind bands/acts that don’t compare at all, never mind readily?