Here’s the talking point for DMA’s. If you look at the YouTube comments for their videos, about half of them concern either how much the band look like Oasis or how much they sound like Oasis. No matter Oasis split up in 2009, and were in their Britpop prime about 15 years before that. The internet, ironically, makes it all-too-easy to focus on a single storyline, turn everything it can into a meme.
Don’t make that mistake with DMA’s. Never mind that they are Australian, not British. True, their indie-pop/rock is influenced by 1990s Britpop in general and Oasis specifically. But the similarities are really ones of attitude, time, and place more than in the music itself. Hills End, DMA’s debut full-length, takes after a line debuts by British indie guitar bands that showed up just when they were needed most, when the music scene treated guitar music like it was dust on a synthesizer or a DJ’s gig bag. The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Suede, Definitely Maybe, and Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not were so celebrated because they were great but also because of when they were great. And the time is, quite frankly, ripe for Hills End.
As with most such bands and albums, it all starts with a single. “Delete” first appeared in 2014 and was included on the band’s self-titled, self-recorded 2015 EP. For three minutes, the song is a plaintive acoustic ballad with a soothing lullaby of a melody. “Don’t delete my baby, don’t defeat her still,” says Tommy O’Dell, with a don’t-mess intensity that qualifies more as provocation than singing. Then in the final minute the track bursts into a blissed-out shoegaze anthem, guitarist Matt Mason’s counterpoint vocal finally outlasting the squalling guitars and drums and O’Dell’s crooning. “Delete” is the rarest of songs, credible indie-rock that works just as well as frathouse singalong. It doesn’t just work in spite of its ridiculous lyrics; it actually is better because of them. And, when you think about it, maybe they are not so ridiculous. It’s the 21st century, where dumping a text or social media feed is the go-to way to forsake.
“Delete” is only one of 12 songs on Hills End, with just one other carry over from the EP. All of those songs are quality stuff, all good and many great. The band have said they spent a couple years writing before they even played a gig, and it shows. This is an album of singles, where you are excited to get to know each of the songs and then, once you do, to listen to them again. The overall construction is pretty consistent, with Johnny Took’s rich acoustic guitar and a better-than-average rhythm section laying down a foundation for Mason’s bright, effects-heavy riffs and O’Dell’s confident, distinctive voice to cut through.
But, like all great guitar albums, Hills End gets a lot of mileage out of those classic ingredients. Yes, there is some Oasis in the anthemic choruses and the swagger. Crucially, though, it’s Oasis with passion instead of petulance. Other influences abound, as well. Take the compressed, très ’80s guitar riff on “Lay Down”. Or the shimmering “Melbourne”, sounding like nothing so much as proto-shoegazers Kitchens of Distinction. Or “So We Know”, pretty much a straight-up folk ballad until the big guitar chords kick in at the end. The track really highlights O’Dell’s voice, and it is a voice, too. The man can hit notes and sound as honest in mid-croon as mid-snarl. Richard Butler from the Psychedelic furs is the most fitting antecedent, but O’Dell probably has more pure vocal talent.
Really, from an aesthetic point of view, those YouTube commenters would be wiser to focus on the Smiths, because that is really where DMA’s seem to find most of their wisdom. It’s there in the layered, jangling guitars and deceptively inventive riffs, for sure. But it’s also there in the bigger picture, in a series of smart, confident choices, such as letting a chorus breathe without vocals the first go-round, or adding some analog synth for color but not getting cute with it. It’s in the way each song is thoroughly its own entity and completely inhabits its construction.
In terms of lyrics, DMA’s can’t come close to Morrissey, of course. They probably can’t even match Gallagher, and if the band are going to grow, this is where they should start. They get in the odd catchy phrase, but mostly they are impressionistic at best, and not every song can be “Delete”.
Shoddy lyrics aside, here is another talking point. Hills End is so good that in 20 years the discussion about the hot new indie guitar band might well focus on how much they look and sound like DMA’s. It’s an outstanding debut.