The Milk Carton Kids came together by chance when two years ago, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan reached a fork in the road in terms of their respective solo careers. With little tangible success to show for their efforts, outside of respect, admiration, and support from peers and L.A. club bookers, the two decided to throw in their lot together as a duo, and began performing in venues in and around the West Coast. Soon, they had found somewhat of a magic formula: a set of rich and plaintive voices that impeccably complemented each other in harmony while being held together by vibrant and clean acoustic fingerpicking emanating pleasantly from vintage ‘50s guitars. It’s a simple and familiar formula, one that references folk titans like the Everly Brothers, the Jayhawks, Welch and Rawlings, and Simon and Garfunkel. The pair also brushed up on the entertainment factor of the folk tradition, as they peppered their between song banter with arcane and subtle humor, thus lending a back-and-forth vaudevillian aspect to the proceedings.
In fact, when one closes their eyes and drifts into the music of the Milk Carton Kids, it’s easy enough to be transported back to a prior era, where the times were just as unsettled as they are now, but perhaps a bit more comforting in their appreciation of simpler pleasures. Like they have on their previous releases, Pattengale and Ryan vary in their approach of lyrical perspective, exploring both the commonplace and the existential with equal regard. The two also have an extraordinary ability to exude relevance, regardless of time or place. The title track juxtaposes the travails of a middle-aged couple with the decline of their once-proud town, now struggling to stay afloat amongst the industrial ruin brought about by political dreams gone awry.
On lead track, “Hope of a Lifetime”, a man’s search for personal identity and meaning is mirrored to that of the pioneer searching for and exploring new terrain. Whether physically or mentally, the song reflects the feelings of a stranger in a strange land: “Freedom comes from being unafraid / From the heartache that can plague a man.” Elsewhere, against the beat of a buoyant upbeat shuffle that makes “Heaven” an album highlight, a skeptical narrator seems to question the nature of the tenets religion/government/corporations/maybe just life in general (?) has been selling: “They promised me heaven / I was hoping for something more.” The characters in these songs may not have the answers, but they never hesitate to dig beneath the surface or ask tough and necessary questions.
If there is to be a quibble with the Milk Carton Kids, it may be that aurally and to some extent, thematically, it’s hard to separate them from their influences. Like those reference points previously mentioned, there are striking similarities in terms of vocal inflection, song structures, and narrative perspectives. Album closer, “Memphis” is a fine song in its own right, but its distinct resemblances to both Welch/Rawlings’ “I Dream a Highway” and Paul Simon’s “Graceland” serve as a bit of a distraction. The production is also a bit too much on the pristine side. It would help the duo develop a bit more of a unique niche with their sound if they maybe took a more “warts and all” approach and hit a few bum notes from time to time. But, generally speaking, the music succeeds on its own terms and is far from a pale imitation of past folk soundscapes. They’re definitely a main act in their own right and not a poor man’s version of more celebrated duos.
Two years removed from their musical partnership, Pattengale and Ryan’s gamble has appeared to pay off. There are the 130,000-plus and counting online downloads of their first two self-released (and free) albums, a record deal with acclaimed label Anti-, and tours with amphitheater-filling acts like Old Crow Medicine Show, the Lumineers, and Punch Brothers to serve as hearty testaments to success. Additionally, Hollywood has come calling, with three songs off of The Ash & Clay featured prominently in the Gus Van Sant/Matt Damon/John Krasinski film Promised Land, and astonishingly enough, they even got red carpet fave Amanda Seyfried to drive around town to the strums of “Honey Honey” in the final installment of a trilogy of videos helping to promote the album’s release. It’s probably a safe bet to assume that this may just be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the fanfare and attention this duo will surely command in the years ahead.