THE D'URBERVILLES with GALAXYand FOREST CITY LOVERS at Sneaky Dee's (431 College), tonight (Thursday, November 23). $5. 416-603-3090. Rating: NNNNN
Southern Ontario rising rock threats the D'Urbervilles' decision to name themselves after the bane of every high-schooler's required-reading list was originally an Oshawa in-joke.
But as the now Guelph-based four-piece gain momentum and notoriety for their tightly wound, outward-looking anthems, the themes of Thomas Hardy's tragic classic seem like a weirdly appropriate fit.
While the tracks on the D'Urbervilles' self-titled, spiral-bound EP may not, say, challenge Victorian sexual mores (even their song Spin The Bottle is wholly chaste), their pointed, precise attacks on class disparity and portraits of working-class frustration have an uncanny resonance with Hardy's story of a hapless underdog literally fucked over by the nouveau riche ruling class.
"If the songs come across as being motivated by a social consciousness, if a song like War On The Poor inspires kids to go out and join Food Not Bombs, that's awesome," effuses self-effacing singer/lyricist John O'Regan, whose background in social justice and aboriginal rights causes is a clear motivator for the anything but navel-gazing tone of D'Urbervilles' tunes. "But even if we just make people feel like they're not alone and someone else in the world thinks the same way they do, that's incredible to us.
"In general, I'm more interested in the stuff people make when they're starting out. It's always really raw, coming from that place where you have a chip on your shoulder and are trying to make a mark. I mean, you start a band cuz you want attention; otherwise, you just go to shows or make music in your bedroom."
The D'Urbervilles are tight and very good at the music they make - echoing, grey-scaled saw-toothed guitar rock, driven by muted drums and pounding bass - but they're working from a heartland art-punk template shared by tons of other bands (think the Constantines and Q & Not U).
It's the calculated, to-the-point critique and unselfconscious urgency of the band's lyrics that are the D'Urbervilles' biggest strengths.
"There are more than enough bands like ours," O'Regan sighs. "White college boys with guitars is definitely not a genre that's in need of greater representation. We can't do a lot to change that other than realize our privilege and act in a way that's not taking up too much space for other people to express themselves."
O'Regan's songs address what it's like to feel beaten down in places like Oshawa and Brantford, where the collapsing industrial infrastructure leads to jobs being yanked out from under communities' feet. He insists that neither he nor his bandmates deliberately set out to write political songs, but cops to an admiration for predecessors like Springsteen ("We're all suckers for Born To Run"), fellow Oshawans Cuff the Duke and the Constantines.
"With that first Cuff the Duke record, I couldn't believe they were from our city. I'd listen to it and go home and play guitar for hours. Our main goal with the band, besides playing a show at the local bar in Oshawa, was not to sound too much like them."
Since forming the band in original drummer C. L. Smith's basement two years back, the D'Urbervilles have been climbing slow and steady. Tonight's Sneaky Dee's show is their first local headlining gig, and their Pop Montreal showcase received buzz.
Peers like Born Ruffians have proven that the trajectory from under-the-radar to international success can happen in mere months, and O'Regan and his pals are starting to worry about how to hold onto their ideology and still look forward to label deals.
"There's less in the way of labels promoting or taking a truly independent stance on things. Not that it's not happening at all," he quickly adds. "There's a great collective out of Guelph right now called Burnt Oak who release a huge variety of lo-fi stuff. But in general, it seems like the indie labels that'll be able to pay for you to get food are getting really big-time.
"We're trying to take things slowly, but it's tough. Remember how we were talking about urgency? It's hard to have these songs and know that if we sit on them for six months someone else'll come along and do it better."