Their name has nothing to do with Elton John and their country-oriented style is hardly reminiscent of their native country, but the UK’s Tiny Dancers have churned out a very worthwhile debut nonetheless.
With chart status and album profits often ringing unavoidably in the heads of new artists, Britain’s contemporary music scene remains active with bands that latch onto what is stylistically determined as “the next big thing”. While there is certainly nothing wrong with churning out radio-friendly songs in the “art-rock” vein of the Arctic Monkeys or the Kooks, it is distinctively admirable when a new band dares to step outside that formulaic circle. Instead of incorporating heavy guitar riffs, thickly English snarls, and punk-ridden influences, Tiny Dancers tread water in a territory that is unfamiliar to most rebellious youths, British and otherwise. Substituting bitterness and social angst for charm and romantic reflection, you are more likely to hear finger-picked folk melodies, catchy pop heartaches, and even country-tinged ballads from England’s latest five-piece.
Considering that they opened with warm applause for a variety of headlining acts ranging from the coarsely energetic Babyshambles to the prolific Bob Dylan, there is little doubt surrounding Tiny Dancers’ ability to please an audience regardless of the crowd’s personal taste. Found within the core of their inviting debut, Free School Milk, underneath the alternating display of country and folk influences, are a handful of commanding songs that will likely be remembered as infectiously enticing to even those whose tastes render as the polar opposite of lighthearted folk-pop. The only question that remains is whether or not those who prefer a harsher listening experience can give Tiny Dancers a proper chance. If they choose to ignore such an opportunity, it is merely their own loss. Free School Milk serves as one of those rare debuts for a band who has already decided, executed, and successfully incorporated their own stylistic tone into their eminently distinguished sound. Though a few bumps in the road, specifically the last two songs, are the only factors that stop Free School Milk from being groundbreaking, the trip is otherwise smooth and enjoyable, decisive proof that these five lads from the English countryside know more than a few things about writing a successful song.
One of the album’s four singles, “Hannah We Know”, has already brought the band a sufficient amount of attention in their native Britain. Listening to such an exceptional track, it's not hard to see why. Though lead vocalist David William Kay’s vocal delivery is generally consistent throughout the entirety of Free School Milk, “Hannah We Know” sees a slight transition from the other songs, most of which are delivered in a tone that is more expressively lighthearted and coherent. In “Hannah We Know”, Kay instead sounds eerily similar to the late co-founder of the Go-Betweens, Grant McLennan. Deeply murmuring through each verse as he creates a vivid picture of an endless “northeastern sky” and a focused traveler relying on his own determination to cross such a romanticized obstacle, Kay lifts his previously deadpan delivery into an emotional outburst during the percussively enhanced chorus. “Hannah We Know” is also a prime example of Tiny Dancers’ usage of keys throughout Free School Milk. Like the soaring “Shame” and bustling “Hemsworth Hallway”, the keys twinkle and shine while acting as the distinguishing melodic factor in each of the songs. Kay’s vocals often correspond directly to the keys, pushing a method that establishes each song’s melodic roots concisely and without overemphasis.
One of the most refreshing characteristics of Free School Milk is its broad range of dispositional lyrical outlooks. Whereas the fluttering “Hannah We Know” is highly optimistic in its constant determination-powered search for requited passion, “Ashes and Diamonds” speaks of regret and remorse, arguably detailing the sexual nature of an immoral affair. "You gonna leave your clothes just scattered around like a plague", Kay sings endearingly, "As she slides so gracefully next to you / Just don't try to stop her now". As Kay begins that last sentence with sincere vacillation, a change in key signals a dramatic cue for the guitar. Both catchy and amiably receptive, “Ashes and Diamonds” proved to be an obvious choice for Tiny Dancers’ most recent single.
While all four singles on Free School Milk are of a catchy, boisterously electric quality, several songs are more reflective of qualities reminiscent of country and soft-spoken folk. With most of these maneuvers found in the latter part of the album, Tiny Dancers pulls off the sentimentally slow-moving country ballads nearly as well as folky pop successes like “Hannah We Know” and “Baby Love”. “Sun Goes Down” borrows a bit of Ryan Adams’s infamous method of supplementing country with rock ‘n’ roll. Impressively, Kay does it almost as well. With such a vocal tone, it remains quite surprising that Kay can pull off such a distinctively western accent after being raised in the English countryside. Actually, upon further recollection, it is not astonishing at all considering the range of Free School Milk. With a proper mixture of bouncy pop songs and acoustically dramatic folk, Tiny Dancers’ debut is wholesomely enjoyable due to its strikingly eclectic characteristics.