It's hard to resist the nagging temptation to place Speedy Ortiz in a retro-'90s box. Named after Eulalio “Speedy” Ortiz, a character from the Hernandez brothers' comic book Love and Rockets, the Northampton, Massachusetts-based indie-rockers once shared the stage with J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., jammed with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and toured with the Breeders two years ago. They've also toured with Thurston Moore's band, Chelsea Light Moving. Sadie Dupuis, lead singer and one of the group's two guitarists (the other being Devin McKnight from the group Grass Is Green), is known in some circles as a member of the dormant all-women Pavement cover band called Babement.
In spite of all those '90s associations, though, Speedy Ortiz continues to establish a distinctively 21st-century charm, energy and personality on their latest effort, Foil Deer. Instead of the “slacker-rock” label the band is occasionally tagged with, more apt descriptions would probably be laugh-rock, lit-rock or hip-rock – it's a funny band fronted by a woman who has a master's degree in poetry, an affinity for saucy chanteuse Kelis and the wittiness of satirist George Saunders's book Braindead Megaphone.
Drummer Mike Falcone sets the somewhat dark yet upbeat tone decisively amid the harmonic distortion of guitars on “Good Neck.” The subtle artsiness of the band's style shows up in the Perfume Genius-inspired gold vinyl pressing and on the colorful album cover, inspired partially by Ossip Zadkine's 1923 golden Art Deco sculpture Le Cerf (The Deer); the same foil deer reappears as metaphorical allusion in the lyrics to “Dot X.” The band's quirky sense of humor is evident in a video for “The Graduates,” which makes reference to quarreling law-school rejects and stars a creepy, dancing white bunny rabbit – there's also an inside joke of sorts about a beloved fellow Massachusetts band named Krill.
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Whereas Speedy Ortiz's previous album, 2013's Major Arcana, focused more on relationships, Foil Deer hones in on the Dupuis brand of feminism and statements of individuality. “Homonovus” begins quietly with Darl Ferm's grungy bass lines and unexpectedly switches to a louder, intentionally messy soundscape of dissonance and white noise. There are few departures from rock here, but “Puffer” tries a little hip-hop; Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone crank out the rhythm as Dupuis proclaims herself to be “god of the liars,” while seemingly referencing Thomas Edison's kinetoscope and Nicki Minaj's “Anaconda.” The front woman has described “My Dead Girl” as having a split identity: Part of the song relishes a woman's independence and was written with a friend after swimming at Connecticut's Lake Waramaug on the Fourth of July. The rest retells a scary night scene in a park with the chilling words “If these are my last words, guess you found me.”
Overall, Foil Dear soars over the Speedy Ortiz's solid earlier efforts, undeniably aided by the addition of McKnight and Dupuis's millennial-feminist take on the mantra “I'm not bossy, I'm the boss,” a quote attributed to Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. Still, any group that allows comedian/guest drummer Hannibal Buress to carry on with his ridiculously bad drumming during a live show obviously has a sense of humor and doesn't take itself too seriously.
Speedy Ortiz performs Thursday, May 14 at Walters Downtown, 1120 Naylor, with special guests Alex G and football, etc. Doors open at 8 p.m.