Dartz is good for our brains:
XMR and the best guitar pop record of 2007
I reject nostalgia, yet it's inescapable – the onrush that trickles through my dam into synapses, grasping reason and caressing it to acceptance. And besides, it awakens such bright clarity of feeling that it'd be churlish to try and shrug it off. It has far too friendly and firm an enticement.
It occurred to me that these past months I've dove into me circa 2006-07, at least musically (to my own relief let alone anybody else's). First, I saw future of the left – who are, don't get me wrong, always moving forward inexorably, forcing grim-faced humour into ever more sharp and brutal shapes, and one of my favourite bands – at Electric Ballroom in April, where they decided to play a fair amount from their first record Curses! (2007). I think almost every set of theirs I've seen in the last few years has included some early songs, but as they only played one from 2013's How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident and two from the 2012 Xtra Mile release The Plot Against Common Sense, the first album seemed to outweigh their later material. Of course I was there mostly to hear how the new songs sounded (six of them, and really fucking good actually), but it's remarkable how well those early songs still fit, five albums in.
Then I went to see Sam Duckworth play as Recreations at The Borderline. In case there were any doubts about how good he was, this is how I described his performance.
Still, for someone in a new guise, he was very at home playing three cuts from his 2006 debut album The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager, an album I've not listened to in about a decade. As he will perform the entire album on its tenth year of existence, it makes sense as to why he brought these out. But how those songs came plunging out of the gloom of the past, reached out and clambered into my brain and out through my mouth – as if I'd been listening to them only yesterday – kind of shook me.
It hit me: that time period was significant to me as I got my first actual salaried job as a music writer / journalist. I'd written for free for about three years before that, and had made contact with Xtra Mile to interview Million Dead – probably my favourite band at the time – in that time, so had made contact with the label early on. They were unlike most labels out there. One: they had two of the greatest bands in the UK, the aforementioned Frank Turner-fronted band and Reuben. Two: they were happy to talk to someone who wanted to write about their bands, unlike a fair amount of 'untouchable labels' and PRs who only wanted to know if you worked for a huge print mag.
Come 2006, XMR had quickly grown and begun to sign bands with a lighter, more intricate sound. This may have been as much to do with the growing UK penchant for melodic, fun, sometimes emo-tinged bands – confusingly emblazoned 'mathrock' – crossed with the huge success of post-punk (think The Pop Group, PiL, Gang of Four, and ESG) inspired bands like Bloc Party as the label's wish to sign whoever they really liked. They were more than the heavy stuff and the quality of some of these bands was hard to ignore.
I saw TTNG (formerly This Town Needs Guns*) a few weeks after Recreations, and they were once of this ilk. They didn't actually release their debut album until 2008, but they were constantly touring around 2006-7 and damnit if '26 is Dancier Than 4' and 'If I Sit Still, Maybe I'll Get Out of Here' aren't some of the best songs of that era, they certainly summed it up for me. TTNG's sound – guitar notes flowing over scattershot drums, like a waterfall breaking on rocks – had a huge nod to American Football, Kinsella and that sort of US indie-emo flavour (though they've far outgrown these reference points now), and it was taken up immediately by others too. A band that's reformed for a handful of shows this year, Meet Me In St Louis, took this influence into jarring, bewildering territory. They released their debut Variations on Swing in 2007, and it's impeccable. A hugely influential band for me, they had a technical and explosive yet ragged brilliance that hasn't been surpassed. At times, it's enough just to keep up with the range of ideas two minutes in. Come minute three though, you've been carried as if upon a landslide – you have no choice and it's exhilarating.
Alongside the obtuse ferocity of Forward Russia!, who released their belter debut Give Me A Wall in 2006, the unfairly maligned second album by The Futureheads (News & Tributes), the off-kilter and weird success of The Young Knives, the superb cynical thrash pop of Johnny Foreigner, the metronomic Foals tearing up small venues in tennis whites, and the obliterated twelve-legged gang thrash of Dananananaykroyd (and a few others) there was so much that complemented this gaggle of exciting bands. They repersented a wealth of really, really good skittery guitar pop. Nothing to do with maths. Sometimes they were heavy and aggressive, sometimes they weren't. Sounds varied, but all were playing small venues and audiences were both lapping and tearing it up. It was great times, as we never said back then.
* – and seriously fuck you to anyone still shouting that old, rejected for good reason name at them. Who do you think you are? Would you call another human being by their former name like some insensitive arsehole? Don't.
Xtra Mile's answer to all of this, not that they needed or were seeking one, was Dartz!. Now, anyone who speaks to me about XMR will always have me reminiscing fondly about Dartz!. This Is My Ship, their debut album, is such an incredible pop record, extracting just a little of the guitar histrionic DNA of the era and taming it with the danceable, rhythmic, almost funky sounds of Clor and the energy of Hot Club De Paris, and that-era Foals. It clambers over all the intricacies though, instead boasting choruses upon choruses. They seemed so confident in terms of songwriting that one record highlight, 'Laser Eyes', spends a minute of gorgeous, metronomically-building guitar lines right up to the OBVIOUS ANTICIPATORY OBLIGATORY THRASHY CHORDS you wanted them to do, only to suddenly end the song. No chorus. That's....amazing. Meanwhile, the singles were all excellent. 'Fantastic Apparatus', 'Once, Twice, Again!', and 'St Petersburg' chime, churn and crescendo in similar ways but leave you in no doubt as to the diverse melodic impact of the band, and still wanting more.
It's an album I played regularly. It's an album I sang to, danced to, lived in for at least a year solid. It narrowly escaped being my album of 2007, which means it's timeless, and not of its time like eventual winner Saturday Night Wrist. It wasn't just the sound, of course. Hidden in the simple, catchy lines – as ever within the words of my favourites – was belonging. Anxiety and slight confusion at how society seemed to be developing, wandering and wondering, intelligent yet placid or wildly imaginative, Dartz! captured my mid-twenties and the uncertain future which lay frightening close. "I don't feel exalted driving Japanese cars and I don't see the value of roofs and paths like well-made rafts, it's not enough to cling to," sang William K. J. Anderson, echoing my despondency of these out-of-reach things versus deeper experience. It made so much sense to me, the collision of science, history and dancing. Once Twice Again! captures this too: "I worry about how tall the buildings are and who built them" before guitarist-turned-drummer Philip J Maughan yells "we'll meet in the city underneath a ne-on sign" like a battlecry. Adrenaline floods through, as it does whenever you reach the apex of their songs.
This was a band whose guitarist and drummer originally played the others' instruments. This was a band who created a concept mini-album about a village and its inhabitants (the underrated The Sad History of the Village of Alnerique). This was a band that abandoned touring after the album was out to focus on their education. They were not very adept at being 'a band', but they were excellent at making music as a band.
With the The Sad History of the Village of Alnerique, released in 2008, they built a small world flowing with the melodies and rhythms they'd built, kept things more understated and reveled in details of villagers lives. Thankfully, they ensured that nothing was left to commercial potential in pursuit of what they wanted. This didn't mean there weren't excellent songs tucked inside this record, just that a cohesive whole demanded less of the obvious pop that'd gone before. It's hardly challenging, but it is a great, well-constructed collection that skips the immediacy of their debut album. In figuring out their lives, they created some new ones and let them live within a babbling brook of a record. The British music scene had quickly moved on, as it does the fickle beast, but Dartz! hung on for just a little longer.
The band split in 2009, with their final gig getting support from Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly., which is wholly satisfying as a narrative if not as a fan. Still, William began duo Algiers a bit later and has just released an EP of songs of his own. Henry J. Carden appeared in Bisons but has plenty of other interests to keep him busy. And so it remains that This Is My Ship somehow encapsulates a time of British guitar pop for me that seemed largely fun, for itself, and enthusiastic about its somersaulting and acrobatics, its intelligence and its simplicity. If you want the best example of that brief bygone time, This Is My Ship is that example. TTNG moved on with new singer Henry Tremain, changing their sound significantly. MMISL were no more. Foals shifted direction dramatically. Dartz!, instead, left an almost quaint companion to their lively, city-dwelling debut. Somehow, they reflect the fears we have now about gentrification (that of estate agents appearing where venues and places to hang out should be) and the ploughing up of historical worth for high value property.
This record lives on somehow outshining a lot of what I hear now. That's notalgia biting again, I'm sure, as well as my willing exposure to it, but it just rings truer than almost every record of this period and quite a few of then. It's enjoyable, it deals with emotional and social concerns with a light touch, more interested in making you shout, dance and recall fondly. The best thing about any record is knowing how it's played but not knowing how it can have an effect on people, especially yourself. There's magic in them there notes and rhythms, and the connection you have is probably one of human to communication, person to time and place, personality to reflection. Dartz! is incredibly good for my brain, and perhaps yours too. Have a listen and decide.
A further collection of excellence