The Milk Carton Kids are tight. They walk on stage in sharp suits, often singing into one microphone, with well-rehearsed harmonies and sometimes even better-rehearsed jokes between songs. More than anything, they are restrained. Most of their barnburner tracks like “Girls Gather Round” and “Heaven” have Joey Ryan’s patient fingerpicking at their foundation, keeping things firmly in-bounds even as Kenneth Pattengale lights up the fretboard.
This sense of patience started to coalesce on Prologue, the duo’s second record, which is seeing a tenth-anniversary reissue. The sound that Prologue introduced us to – and that the duo continues to offer – is a delicate, insular thing. It seems to close off the outside universe. It’s a special sound.
Tellingly, Prologue is the first album released under the Milk Carton Kids name; its predecessor, Retrospect, is credited to “Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan”. Before Prologue, they were not quite a band. Retrospect, while a lot of fun, sees Pattengale and Ryan supporting each other on tracks clearly written as solo pieces that got some extra guitar accompaniment and vocal added in. It’s not until the sophomore release that we see the combined sound of the Milk Carton Kids emerge.
This special edition of Prologue – a three-LP set – helps fill in the gaps between these two records, giving us a way to understand how their sound became one. The first album contains the original record, with the second and third offering demos of each track and a few live versions. The second vinyl is particularly interesting, chronicling the development of setlist mainstay “Michigan” (written by Ryan) and the upbeat “New York” (by Pattengale).
The earliest demos of both tracks reveal that the two songs started in a much rawer place than their final versions. It’s almost unsettling to hear the vulnerability in the voices of two people we’re used to hearing tell deadpan jokes in suits. Both Ryan and Pattengale sing with full voices, letting loose, producing a much more wild sound than anyone who has heard pretty much any Milk Carton Kids song is used to. As the demos progress across the second record, the songs slowly take shape and get tamed into the versions we now know, which are certainly better-arranged and thought-out but do leave out some of that early vigor. As a fan of the group, I’m now grateful to have both versions of these classic songs.
The third LP, which offers more demos, rehearsals, and live performances of the rest of the Prologue songs are most noteworthy for their documentation of works-in-progress. Pattengale and Ryan linger to get the harmonies in tune on “I Still Want a Little More”, Pattengale writes the tender ending of “Stealing Romance” in real-time, and they work out the right key for “Undress the World”. The best standalone performance is probably “No Hammer to Hold”, (featuring a harmonic “gaffe” — Pattengale’s words), which elevates the original version’s tension even more than one might have thought possible.
Prologue is an excellent album, and the re-release is a compelling documentation of the Milk Carton Kids finding their sound. Only available as a three-LP vinyl set and full of alternative versions of known songs rather than new tracks, the collection appeals mainly to avid fans of the group. That, of course, was the intent – it will be a very special thing for those people.