Well thank God for that. With a seemingly irrepressible enthusiasm for the exclamation mark (there’s four amongst the song titles, too, in addition the band’s name) and a moniker that can’t help but bring to mind a disturbingly ubiquitous franchise of pre-pubescent girls’ toys, it is a relief to realise that Dartz! aren’t as self-consciously WACKY! as you first anticipate. But then perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Dartz! hail from Middlesbrough, a north-eastern English town so mundane that the closest it skirts to boasting a claim to fame is the fact that, not all that long ago, it used to be really quite a lot smaller than it is now. Oh, and it’s got a bridge, too. Not that Dartz! are particularly mundane themselves, it’s just that anyone able to emerge overtly madcap from an upbringing in such a locale would be displaying a detachment from their environment of a severity previously reserved for the Bush administration’s climate change policies.
Anyway, there must be something in the water up there, because in the last few years the northeast corner of England has produced a cluster of post-punk bands with a penchant for spiky riffs and melodic vocals. The Futureheads and Maximo Park have hitherto garnered the most critical attention, but Dartz! are now making (new) waves of their own. Stragglers in a vague scene of inherently British jagged ‘art-rock’ they may be, but to these ears they are indebted more to a clutch of similarly rambunctious punk-orientated bands from across the Atlantic; the likes of Q and Not U and Les Savy Fav. Take, for the instance, the convulsive “St. Petersburg”, its call-and-response guitar-bass interplay mimicked by vocalists William Anderson and Philip Maughan, indicative of a professed love for the American independent underground.
But while Dartz! may wear their influences on their sleeves, their debut full-length, This Is My Ship, is generally idiosyncratic enough to avoid being derivative. Much of this is in the delivery, if not always the actual material. In a British indie scene that sees one half of its proponents sporting ‘mockney’ accents, the other faux-American, there is certain appeal to an outfit that doesn’t try to be more than the sum of its parts, as the continued success of the Artic Monkeys exemplifies. Like the Futureheads, Dartz! have the brazenly north-eastern accents, but they also combine a wit and intelligence with intriguing lyrical targets, while refraining from any of the condescending, ‘insightful’ social commentary offered by some of their peers. Indeed, it is Dartz!‘s lyrical diversity that is most attractive. We get the unabashed escapism of “Once, Twice, Again!” one minute; an examination of the life of a scientist the next (“A Simple Hypothetical”), while “Laser Eyes” is an exposition of the often criminally overlooked topic of robot love (“It’s not impossible to feel / When your heart is made of chrome and steel”).
After hearing this latter track it should come as no surprise that the trio’s formation allegedly stemmed from Anderson’s desire to inject some colour into his musical life after a series of unsuccessful, staid projects. And so it stands to reason that when Dartz! are at their best is when they just seem to be having fun. I defy anyone to hear the swaggering stomp of potential indie club hit “Prego Triangolos”, for example, without raising a smile at its unprecedented falsetto and lyrical peculiarities (“You have three sides, but you’re not a triangle / You have three sides, but you are a square”). Lord knows what any of it means, of course, but who cares, frankly, when it’s this much fun.
There are times, perhaps, when This Is My Ship could do with a few more songs like “Prego Triangolos” and one or two less like “Documents”, a technically-proficient but mostly uninspiring fusion of post-punk and what the older sections of Dartz!‘s audience might term ‘proper’ emo. But the nature of the beast which Dartz! aspire to be is that it sinks or swims simply on the basis of the quality of the songs, and thankfully This Is My Ship is rife with edgy riffs and catchy choruses. Intelligent, memorable, and quite often unprecedentedly danceable, they’re not quite the finished article yet, but they’re well on their way.