In a recent interview with No Depression, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale took time out to try and articulate the difference between art and artifice, specifically, uncritical reviews, as well as the role of the touring musician, the personality behind the guitar, and whether the two remain compatible after months on the road. As evidenced by their deliberately free-wheeling discussions live, Joey and Kenneth, or as they are better known, The Milk Carton Kids, enjoy a robust on-stage relationship that fuels their artistry. Neither appears to have an answer to where the person ends and the music begins – that puzzle is one part of what makes the Milk Carton Kids so special.
On the road, it’s a positive to be able to pack two guitars, two microphones and a backline up and move to the next hall; no fireworks, no dancing girls, no convoy of articulated trucks burning up the tarmac. Their compact nature is another element of the band persona. In concert, they always stand facing each other, fretboards inches away from touching, Pattengale leaning in and out of Ryan’s personal space as he discovers places on the guitar few others dare to tread. Everything you see suggests they’ve created a protective bubble around themselves; everything you hear is gloriously broad and deep, the most flamboyant yet controlled sweeps of the brush against canvas.
If you include their free-to-download albums, Monterey is their fourth studio release. Whilst there were gems on Retrospect and Prologue, it was 2013s The Ash and Clay that elevated their status, its strength lying in the consistency and quality of the material. No one doubted their skill before, but The Ash and Clay showcased their musicality without losing sight of the song. A higher profile led to whole sections of the critical media, professional and otherwise, labelling them as little more than poor Simon and Garfunkel imitators. This is a particularly shallow and ignorant perception seemingly generated by thirty second previews on i-Tunes. The Milk Carton Kids blew through these views in the traditional way; they took to the road and earned their place on the tour treadwheel. Their hard work has been rewarded of late with an Americana award and a Grammy nomination; in-between shows and events, they’ve dipped in and out of studios to record Monterey.
As such, Monterey is very much a road album, and represents a consolidation of the work on The Ash and Clay rather than a bold move forwards. This makes sense; there’s only so much soul-searching and investigation you can do in the back of a car and during sound-checks. There are no forays into radical (for them) instrumentation, no guest spots or clever production techniques. In terms of craft, there was always the possibility that Kenneth’s exploration of his Gibson would unbalance the delicate status-quo, but this hasn’t happened. Only the opening track Asheville Skies features a coda that allows him to venture forth on the folk-equivalent of a Grateful Dead wig out and even then it’s completely in keeping with the troubled weather inherent in the title. This is heartening so early on in the album and the remainder goes a long way to dissolving any negative arguments about where the power lies in The Milk Carton Kids; the creative burden is shared. In fact, Joey’s baritone and elegant rhythm remains the foundation on which the edifice rests – on Monterey he sounds in control, the homing beacon Kenneth spirals to and from on flights of fantasy that only take your breath away because you know he’ll make it home before the song finishes.
Asheville Skies is a gentle re-introduction, but they hit paydirt soon after on Getaway, a lattice of web-thin arpeggios and runs that skitter over Joey’s gentle rhythm, their voices barely above a whisper yet full of round-sounding vowels and full-to-the-brim couplets. It’s a beautiful song, the type that makes you sit back in your chair, expel air in a stream of dis-belief and shake your head in wonder. Monterey wears its origins on its sleeve – ‘I can hear the road call.. I can see the north star overhead’, a line of descending melody lines and Joey’s loping guitar emulating the steps of a journey while Kenneth’s Latin flavoured lead emotes over the top. At this point, nothing has breached walking pace. Under normal circumstances this might soon become an issue, but The Milk Carton Kids work is designed to be enjoyed like vintage single malt; the small sipping, gently reflective pace provides every note and every space in-between time to resonate.
Their skill with words is often overlooked as connoisseurs of the six-string go looking for the latest curlicue and fret position, but they can turn a phrase and couplet as well as any. How about this from Getaway, ‘Outside Tuscaloosa, the time you thought you’d turned it all around / Remember you used to think, you could salvage anything you found’, or this declamatory opening to Secrets Of The Stars, ‘The only time I ever heard the voice of God / Was in the silence of the night, in the arms of the one I love / Staring at the ceiling up above / Like it contained the secrets of the stars’. The subtle protest of Freedom reminds us that Joey and Kenneth aren’t afraid of delivering a message – ‘Screaming as the shots ring out / That’s what freedom sounds like now’ – the chiming guitars and simple delivery akin to an updated protest track from American Pie.
Shooting Shadows adopts a conversational lyric on a series of vignettes that Joey’s ragged vocal inhabits with empathy while Kenneth’s tenor rides the melody line. There are traces of Appalachia in The City Of Our Lady, and in Sing, Sparrow, Sing, a lullaby of exquisite beauty proves the old adage that the song is in the spaces.
Monterey is short by comparison with a lot of new releases these days, the eleven tracks will only cost you 38 minutes of your time. It’s the briefest of glimpses into the Carton Kid’s world and provides no answer to the questions posed at the beginning of this review. This is is a good thing. The need to push at the boundaries of their musical and personal connections is one that results in music that is both fragile and underwritten by a steely, questing, restless narrative, a wish to find the best of themselves and their instruments and in doing so, reclaim ‘art’ from artifice. As often happens with the important artists, it feels like we’re just along for the ride and The Milk Carton Kids are important. The need to question the semantics of performer and performance, and to disagree on the likely result is a key component of their make-up, the tension that warrants attention. It should be a comfort that they will continue to do so regardless of whether you listen or not, and if you choose to, you’ll be glad you did; Monterey is wonderful.
Review by: Paul Woodgate