I had the privilege to see Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale perform in a tiny, crowded theater in the wake of winter with my father about two years ago, fresh from the release of The Ash & Clay, and I will never forget the specific way in which they set up – one solitary microphone in the center of the stage, with the two of them harmonizing on either side – or their hilariously deadpan sense of humor that takes a split-second of realization to fully appreciate. The renditions of “Snake Eyes” and “Michigan” seemed to put the whole theater in a trance, and by the time the soothing, paternal track “Charlie” came around, I was fully convinced of the power that these two men possess in conveying the most delicate of feelings. Even though Monterey, their fourth studio album, was released back in May, I feel it’s necessary to revisit the sounds that complete it, and take a moment to marvel at what makes it so delicately self-aware.
Monterey still has those wonderfully frayed, yet cathartic feelings that enraptured their last albums, but instead of bending over backwards, it takes a more relaxed position in conveying them. Most of the tracks are beautifully listless, and the lyrics are slow and steady, almost as if they’re careful not to express the wrong thing. Overall, it sounds comfortable, lived-in, and intimate, perhaps having to do with the fact that the album, in its entirety, was recorded live. As a result, it’s easier to hear the vocal harmonies and the specific lyrics that embrace each track, and tracks like “Ashville Skies” and “Monterey” sound almost like a private conversation that sounds wrong to eavesdrop. Since it’s such a deep, introspective album, most of the subject matter is less than palatable at times, despite being drenched in such nostalgic, pastoral imagery. It does have the tendency to sound tired and sleepy, which unfortunately tends to blur some of the tracks together. However, the upbeat, lively tracks “High Hopes” and “The City of Our Lady” fulfill my desire to hear some of their past sound, namely, Kenneth Pattengale’s skilled, almost machiavellian way in which he treats his guitar. As much as I love these upbeat tracks, I keep coming back to “Secrets of the Stars,” a gorgeous, multi-faceted gem of a track. It’s the most Milk Carton Kids-y song that you could possibly imagine, and it’s perhaps one of the most delicate and thoughtful songs they have ever recorded. The lyrics are absolutely gorgeous and hymnal, and ultimately, makes Monterey a more impressive album due to the mere fact that this track appears in its track listing.
Over the past few months, I’ve found myself willingly waist-deep in the unknowingly existential goop of post-punk, the brooding waves of electronica, and the darkness of synth pop, simultaneously attracted and inspired by their individual inspirations and lamentations, but was feeling a little lost in other genres. In fact, this entire week I was all set to write a review of an album that fits these exact specifications, but then it rained for the first time in months, which had to be a sign. I’m not quite sure what it is about drops of water falling aimlessly from the sky, but its soothed my hardened exterior and reawakened that sense of soft, yet stark beauty that often times is too difficult to explain. That inexplicable characteristic is what seems to define the music of The Milk Carton Kids, a duo that ironically strives to go above and beyond what minimalist Americana has to offer. Obviously, I see no problem in continuing to indulge in that darker, brooding side of music, but during my anticipated bouts of mania, I’m comfortable knowing these soft, nostalgic sounds continue to flourish.
photo by Andrew Paynter