It’s interesting that what the Milk Carton Kids do in concert — namely, putting on lively folk shows with amusing banter — doesn’t really translate into what they do on record. Live or recorded, their music consists of just two guys singing, harmonizing, and playing a pair of acoustic guitars. Monterey, the duo’s third album, is nearly devoid of lighthearted songs or even lyrics that reflect the cheekiness of their band name. No, this is a serious, sometimes dour affair, much of it consisting of songs so minimalist that even the guitars can feel like an afterthought. This doesn’t prevent it from being a good album; it just means it’s not a particularly fun listen.
The rich harmonies and wistful tone of opener “Asheville Skies” invites reviewers like me to keep making all of the easy comparisons of the Milk Carton Kids to Simon & Garfunkel. This is the kind of song that you could almost imagine being a lost B-side from that ‘60s duo, except for the two extended solos that show off a Spanish-influenced fingerpicking style, which definitely gives the Milk Carton Kids a bit of unique flavor. This turns out to be a harbinger of things to come. Whenever any sort of flavor beyond “minimalist folk” comes out, the songs on Monterey seem to rouse from their general sleepiness and develop their own identity.
“Getaway”, the album’s second song, would be a delightfully calm break on a different folk act’s record. An easygoing guitar line, with simple licks that seem almost improvised, sets the stage for an equally simple but effective melody. It’s very nice. But then the third song, “Monterey”, follows the exact same template, aside from a bit more of that Spanish guitar flavor. “Freedom” at least has a lyrical point of view about war and the military to give it heft that isn’t there musically. “Deadly Bells” and closer “Poison Tree” don’t have even those minor things to set them apart, so they just sort of quietly lie there.
Those songs only account for just over half of Monterey. The album’s best track, “Shooting Shadows”, has a musical tension to it as well as a lyrical specificity that sets it apart from the rest of the songs here. It helps that the song has a clear delineation between verse and chorus, and that the chorus works as a release valve for the tension of the verses. It feels like the duo put some real songwriting work in on this one instead of just sort of lightly strumming chords to support the melody and fingerpicking whatever they felt like in between the lyrics.
“Secrets of the Stars”, co-written by Sarah Jarosz, has a livelier tempo and more active guitar parts to give the song a bit of momentum. Similarly, “High Hopes” benefits from its fast tempo and fast guitars. The way the chorus (“I’ve got high / I’ve got high / I’ve got high hopes tonight / I’ve got high alright”) leans on the word “high” makes one wonder if the song’s narrator, on his way to fight in a war, is indulging in some mind-altering substances. It’s the one instance on Monterey of that aforementioned cheeky attitude, which is refreshing. The short, bluegrassy “The City of Our Lady” also feels more awake due to its positive outlook and upbeat sound.
The songs on Monterey are uniformly pretty, due to the excellent harmonizing of Ken Pettengale and Joey Ryan, but the downcast vibe the record has seems like it will limit its appeal to very specific sections of the folk and Americana audiences. Still, the Milk Carton Kids have been doing this sort of thing for three records now. Since their audience apparently includes the producers of Austin City Limits (who have given the duo two appearances in the last two years) and the de facto Americana music heads of state in Nashville, so they must be doing a lot of things right. It probably helps that duo themselves are so personable, even when their music isn’t. The flashes of musical personality Pettengale and Ryan show on Monterey are what makes album a good outing overall and keep it from being a full-scale downer.