This review originally appeared on No More Workhorse
Hot on the heels of Hidden Highways’ sublime debut record Old Hearts Reborn from earlier this year, Limerick’s Out On A Limb records, have not for the first time, decided against relinquishing their crown, as one of Ireland’s leading independent labels, with the release of Crayonsmith’s Milk Teeth.
It’s been five years since the release of Ciarán Smith’s second full length album White Wonder, which included the effortlessly captivating single ‘Lost In A Forest’. It was a collection of lo-fi inspired recordings, that garnered the Dubliner a wider audience, yet was also one which veered towards fusing indie pop and heartfelt lyrics, with varying degrees of samples mashed with electronic beats.
However in this instance Smith has bid adieu to the world of sampling, and instead drafted in Wayne Dunlea (ex-Waiting Room and Hooray For Humans) on drums, and bassist Richie O’Reilly (Guilty Optics), for the recording of this, his third long player. It is also the first time that a fully formed three piece has completed an album under the Crayonsmith moniker, and it’s something that has brought a fuller and more natural, rounded out sound to the record.
Smith’s voice contains at times, a resemblance to that of Belle & Sebastian main man Stuart Murdoch throughout Milk Teeth, yet he manages to hold an extra bit of zest and vigour, that the Scotsman fails to sometimes match.
While the lyrical content may at times seem quite downtrodden, its Smith’s ability to deftly craft out a gem of a tune from the numerous heavy laden and auto-biographical themes, that makes you want to return to this album over and over.
Opener ‘The Fix’ kicks things off with a dose of dour imagery as Smith laments; “So your back on your own/You know you owe alot of money/And the harder you work/The less you make”. Not the prettiest of pictures for the listener it must be said. However the way in which the plucked guitar notes, Dunlea’s rhythmical beats, and O’Reilly’s driving bass, sit so well alongside Smith’s voice, allows the song to still feel uplifting, despite the best efforts of its forlorn message.
It’s an opening number that says alot about what Crayonsmith is trying to achieve with Milk Teeth; it contains a stripped back sound, that brings to the fore the simplicity – at times – of the song’s arrangements, which in turn is something that only highlights the musical prowess of all three musicians involved.
‘Chrysalis’ begins with a contained drum sound and some deft keyboard playing, which draws you in for a good sixty seconds, before Smith’s exquisite vocals come to the fore. From there on in the three piece hit the ground running, especially during the last two minutes, when you are taken away on an instrumental journey, you wish would never end.
The reality of adolescence and social awkwardness, are highlighted during third track, ‘Sideways’:“Never had a teenage love/Always friends and social clubs/It was stress to beat the rest/I felt a conflict in my chest”, as Smith reveals what the barren years of puberty can be like to a person. It’s a scenario that doesn’t necessarily end once you grow older however, as he remembers: “Twenty-one and twice as dumb/The girl I met was far too young”. For me, Dunlea’s drumming most definitely takes centre stage during this song, which is not to say a bad word against the rest of the piece, as it’s one of my favourites on Milk Teeth. But I can’t help finding myself focusing in on his pinpoint beats every time, especially during the post-rock like final third.
Angular guitar licks and a pounding bass introduce ‘Laugh It Off’, a track that seems to ebb on the dark side of the spectrum: “They wont know what to believe/When they read your history/When they learn to cope and kick and scream“, yet at the same time it incorporates the record’s first sing-a-long and head bopping chorus.
Multiple layers of sound – including the addition of an organ – are concealed within the folk-ish ‘White Dwarf’. The ability in Smith’s delicate voice being able to sit so smoothly alongside Dunlea and O’Reilly’s subdued backing vocals, epitomises that Crayonsmith are the cusp of something special.
An ode to a time the three lads spent together in the same house in Dublin, is up next in the form of ‘Claude Road’. It’s the first time that Smith’s vocals seemingly blur into the music. Not in a lost and mumbling kind of way, but with this track Crayonsmith have allowed the guitar, bass and drums take centre stage, so at times it sounds like a continuation of ‘Sideways’ post-rock voyage. Next up it seems as though it’s the sound of keyboards and guitar, that in a round about way, connects what is going on during ‘Pilates’, a song which once it picks up the tempo, highlights yet again, just how tight a unit O’Reilly and Dunlea are.
The pace with which ‘Pilates’ finishes, fails to continue, as the depressingly titled ‘Lets Split Up’, brings the whole mood crashing down, in spectacular fashion. It’s definitely not a song for the faint hearted, with gut wrenching imagery obvious from the start: “Have you had enough?/These years have been so tough/You are not the girl that I once knew/And you were not a man that I’d now choose”. And it fails to pick up for either party with the following: “Taxi waits outside/And now we’re out of time/You promised me you’d never leave my side/I’m sorry but the love between us died”. I can only guess that this is an auto-biographical song, yet it’s one that Smith has managed to tell quite poignantly, through the medium of heart rendering song.
The album finishes up with a nod to the synth and post-punk inspired records that Ciarán Smith, Richie O’Reilly and Wayne Dunlea must have have devoured, in their formative years. ‘Swells’ opens with a repetitive and eerie sounding keyboard, while Smith’s smooth vocals continue to shine a light on his picturesque lyrics.
With final track ‘Kit Gloves’, Crayonsmith have completely changed tact. And in a way I did not see coming! This faced paced track bombards you right from the off, with a combination of heavy synths, pounding drums, thumping bass and jangly guitar. It’s as if the doom and gloom of the previous nine tracks has lifted, and that Milk Teeth’s central character, has seemingly managed to come out unscathed on the far side.
This is a record that hand on heart deserves to be heard by the larger majority out there. It’s an album that contains a lot of blood, sweat, heartache and tears, so do yourself a favour, buy a copy of Milk Teeth and enjoy this indie pop fueled, emotional roller-coaster of a trip.