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We're in the middle of the game now, and the members of Speedy Ortiz are beginning to hit their stride. In the last two frames, among the four of them, they've bowled five strikes and two spares. Nothing about their sad and wayward early rolls helped foretell that something like this was possible. But as bassist Darl Ferm (bowling name, Big Papi*) rolls the ball down a perfect, just-slightly-off-the-middle line for another strike, it becomes clear: This band of Western Massachusetts guitar music heroes may each break 100.
We're at the Gutter (200 N. 14th Street) bowling alley in Williamsburg. It's a lovely Friday afternoon. The crew of the HBO show Girls is here, too, blocking scenes at the alley's bar and reading aloud from a script from the upcoming season, though that's really neither here nor there. The band — singer/guitarist Sadie Dupuis (bowling name, Smooth Criminal), new guitarist Devin McKnight (Slow & Low), and drummer Mike Falcone (Very Ape) — is familiar with the show, but, you know, it's no Law & Order SVU.
It's a rare moment in the life of Speedy Ortiz — a day off. Over the last year, and 2014, in particular, they've been Road Dogs of the Highest Order, schlepping out on tours that have taken them all over the United States, Canada, Europe, and back. They've been on some impressive bills along the way: Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, the Breeders, Los Campesinos, Joanna Gruesome, and Bonnaroo. Soon, just after our own Village Voice 4Knots Festival (where they'll share a stage with Dinosaur Jr., Mac DeMarco, Those Darlins, and many more) on Saturday, July 12, it's out on the road again. One of the gigs on their upcoming tour will be at Chicago's Pitchfork Festival, the eponymous live-music extravaganza of the site that, it can't be argued, kicked the band into high demand in the first place when it rightly named their album Major Arcana Best New Music a year ago.
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"This is our first real break from tour in seven months," Dupuis says.
Major Arcana takes the guitar acrobatics and straightforward swing of many a '90s band — Pavement, Helium, Polvo, Dinosaur Jr. — and wraps them all in Dupuis's powerful, quivering voice and wry lyrics. Dupuis's crunchy guitar histrionics are joined by the beefy chords of former guitarist Matt Robidoux (who took an indefinite hiatus from the band in May, replaced now by McKnight), and songs like "No Below" and "Tiger Tank" get their hooks in you on first listen. Falcone's thundering drums and Ferm's steady back end tie the whole thing up. Major Arcana is a major success, and it's only now, with this bit of time off, that Dupuis and company have had time enough to work on any new material.
"Every day I wake up and go swimming for an hour and then try to write as many songs as I can," she says. "So I've written 10 since Tuesday. Not toward any real direction or release plan, just trying to get the rust off my writing process.
"It's pretty surreal that my job is now to sit around and write songs all day, except on days in which I have to drive far and then play the songs" she tweeted the other day.
Back at bowling, the wheels have begun to fall off for everyone but Falcone. The last time the group bowled together was in Whitefish, Montana, on Falcone's birthday, with Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, which had a ringer, bassist Joanna Bolme, on their team. She offered Speedy Ortiz pointers (Dupuis needed to bend her knees, etc.). They didn't stick.
Dupuis's knees still don't bend, but she has enough power and aim to knock down pins when she doesn't end up in the gutter.
Ferm, just like a bassist, is steady, easily the most consistent. Where the rest of the band is gutter balls or lucky strikes, his score is even throughout.
New guitarist McKnight has a sleepy delivery, and his balls take a while to get down the lane.
And drummer Falcone bowls like...well, a drummer — all ferocious power, he hurls the ball down a quarter of the lane before it touches down. Apparently, Malkmus took one look at his form in Montana and said, "This guy's never bowled in his life." But he wound up "Most Improved" in Whitefish, and ended up topping the rest of the band on the scoreboard. An apt gift.
Final scores at the Gutter:
Sadie Dupuis — 81
Mike Falcone —- 119
Darl Ferm — 99
Devin McKnight — 95
* Sometimes, while bowling, and certainly during this particular game, players (and the writers writing about them) consume alcohol. As a result, some details are fuzzy. Bowling names, for instance.
Speedy Ortiz will bowl you over this Saturday, July 12, at 4Knots Music Festival, which takes place at South Street Seaport, 1 — 8 p.m.