It’s a common reviewer trope to say that a self-titled album is usually called as such because it represents the definitive version of the band, but with Milk Teeth, that really feels like the case. Between 2016’s Vile Child and now, they’ve undergone some sizable changes in lineup, most notably in the addition of Nervus frontwoman Em Foster on guitar, and despite the rather surprising amount of backlash they’ve received for it, it’s a move that’s resulted in what’s felt like the strongest incarnation of Milk Teeth to date. They’ve become a lot more direct and focused, particularly through a summer of festival performances last year in which each one felt like a new milestone, and a series of singles that have condensed the previous grunge and shoegaze influences in their sound into straight-up alt-rock have been much more solid. Sure, the departure of drummer Oli Holbrook and subsequent replacement by Nervus’ Jack Kenny doesn’t totally put paid to the revolving door lineup idea that can easily float around (especially now that vocalist / bassist Becky Blomfield is the only original member left), but it’s hard to deny that Milk Teeth have really settled into their own identity at this point, which is more than could be previously said for them.
And when taking into account how that’s affected their musical output, it’s still safe to say that the standalone single Stain remains Milk Teeth’s crowning achievement to date, as this self-titled album can’t quite reach the same levels of greatness. That’s not to say it’s bad – far from it, in fact – but throughout, there’s a constant niggling feeling that says that this is a band who could push themselves further than what they’re offering here. But at the same time, the benefits of strengthening and augmenting their sound are plentiful, especially when they feel more committed to going down the route of ‘90s alt-rock anthems and are so comfortably pulling it off. As far as radio-ready rock in 2020 goes, this has some real gems on it, even despite how latent the ability to go even further is.
When it comes to addressing where that holding back feels most apparent though, it would be in the writing, and how a lot of the more barbed and politicised side of Milk Teeth that’s been a factor both in and away from their music doesn’t show up much at all here, or at least as explicitly as it could. Largely, the focus is directed towards a breakup, and the history of mistreatment and gaslighting that Blomfield underwent within the relationship for it to end up at such a stage. Among that, there’s definitely the sense of empowerment breaking through that’s a good fit for Milk Teeth, like the proclamations of self-worth on Better or the spit-flecked takedown of said ex on Destroyer that really hits with an almost malevolent energy. There’s definitely a bit more dimension here than being just a normal breakup album (especially when there’s the brighter tones of Circles towards the end to imply a new, much healthier relationship on the horizon), but it’s still all operating with the sort of narrow reach that Milk Teeth don’t have to consign themselves to at this stage. There’s enough in the way of detail and personal stakes to mitigate any really prominent tropes, especially when even the anger on a track like Given Up is seen as rising above the situation rather than straight belligerence, but it’s still an arc that could do with a bit more meat on it to be elevated from good (certainly above a lot of material of this stripe) to great.
Fortunately that elevating factor is the music, where the past few years of honing and retooling within the Milk Teeth camp have displayed by far the greatest improvements, and it’s no different here. Now, they’ve got all the hallmarks of a big, ready-for-prime-time rock band without losing the earthier, more ragged qualities that saw their following balloon; just take opener Given Up for a prime example, which effectively comes across like the Foo Fighters’ Times Like These viewed through a slightly more rugged lens. That’s a strong bar to set when it comes to how anthem-focused this current incarnation of Milk Teeth is, as they pull on their previous shades of punk and grunge on Flowers and Transparent for the sort of radio-rock hits-in-waiting that have all the necessary bounce and pace, before showing a keen ear for slower, more contemplative material on Smoke that works just as well, if not better, even. There’s an sense of exuberance that’s almost like pop-rock that comes from Milk Teeth’s core, but there’s a distinct darkness and meatiness to the production that drives it all forward in a way that holds onto momentum so much more proficiently. The far-and-away standout is Blomfield’s bass work and the teeth-rattling tone it lends to the likes of Flowers and Sharks, and when that’s paired with Foster’s punkier sensibilities and infrequent but potent vocal interjections like on Destroyer, there are shades of alt-rock within Milk Teeth that are much richer and livelier. It’s not a foolproof tactic that they’re using, as more nondescript cuts like Medicine and Wanna Be show, but the fact that Milk Teeth succeed far more often than they don’t feels like an overall satisfying conclusion for how much work has gone into their sound.
Even with the ill-advised restraint that’s honestly this album’s biggest shortcoming, it finally feels as though Milk Teeth have a full body of work that matches the hype and potential that’s shrouded them pretty much since inception. From a compositional aspect, the improvements are substantial, both in overall sonics and the way in which they hit, and bringing all of that together into a tight, often great collection of songs gets a whole lot out of it. There’s still a bit of retooling to go, but it’s nowhere near as much as might previously have been needed, and that’s a great thing in itself. At long last, Milk Teeth look to be making the waves that have always been expected but seldom been delivered, and right now, there’s no doubt they’ve got the momentum to keep it up for as long as possible.
For fans of: Foo Fighters, Black Foxxes, Nervus
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Milk Teeth’ by Milk Teeth is out now on Music For Nations.