THE MILK CARTON KIDS
All The Things That I Did And All The Things That I Didn’t Do (Anti-)
You are two men with guitars. Just guitars. One of the guitars with a handkerchief or scarf knotted halfway up the neck; one of the men with glasses. You sing and you harmonise with a similar simplicity-with-elegance, a similar dusty-times-before-television essence, to your plain suits and ties. And your tone, your stories, are as sombre, as shorn of fripperies, as minor (key, and flair) as those very suits.
You’re not related but in talking about you and your sound, people often talk brothers (Louvin, Everly) or couples (Gillian Welch and David Rawlings). You are friends, probably even like each other – and on stage can be utterly hilarious, sprung from perfect comic timing - but in talking about you and your sound, people often bring up fractious pairings (Simon And Garfunkel).
After four albums of stark folk/country/Americana, it’s clear to us why you might want to change the narrative, change the references, change the sound. There’s only so many ways to work this angle, as good as you are doing it. After all, even Welch and Rawlings went halfway to rock band with the Dave Rawling Machine project. And Paul left Art and found rhythm.
But how, without losing the essence? Certainly, releasing as the first single from the new album a song that that eases past the 10-minute mark and comfortably positions itself as an epic might help.
But in a way that song, One More For The Road, is both deceptive and perfectly indicative of the route taken on an album whose title is too long to be repeated throughout this review so let’s call it All The Things ….
The deception is in the fact it is the length, the scope of the vision if you will, of the song which earns it its epic-ness, not its sound or any sense of grandiosity. Drama is contained and the build up is to a heightened intensity rather than a release.
But look within that sound and you see how this album will, and does, play out: drums and bass, electric guitars even, but still principally acoustic and still working around the voices of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan. The background is fuller but it’s not packed. This is more, yes, but hardly shouting that information.
And that’s the point. Across All The Things … Pattengale and Ryan are backed by a band where violin and upright bass, pedal steel and drums, piano and saxophone do what they have to do, and no more. The band enhances rather than imposes, but it also allows a subtle shift in the context of these songs.
While the country and folk roots remain here - Younger Years for example, is a Brooklyn cowboy song without need of a horse, and Blindness has the low light and open skies of campfire songs of yore - in the broader sound and especially in the tone and delivery of the vocals, there is a definite feel of what you might call parlour song.
That is, the kind of popular tunes that filled homes in the 1950s before (and after) rock, fed the likes of Paul Simon, Artie Garfunkel and Burt Bacharach, and appeared in the decade after, disguised in brightly coloured clothes and touches of psychedelia, but which could still be traced through what we now call the American Songbook.
To that end, I’ve Been Loving You and Nothing Is Real are the country and traditional ends of the same musical story and could have been sung by Roy Orbison, then, or Nick Lowe, now, but also have appeared in a Warner Brothers musical. A Sea Of Roses may deploy a pedal steel but it’s a tune which could easily have been picked out on a Palm Springs bungalow’s upright.
It’s a mixture which plays to their strengths - including some we didn’t know about - and plays to our weaknesses – for tunes and tales. And it works.
The Milk Carton Kids probably did need to change the conversation, make us think again, or think differently, when listening to them. Luckily, they were smart enough to know just how much to add, and talented enough to provide the best base material on which to lay the new colours.
Two men with guitars do more, go further? In truth, the success of this album is down to all the things they did and all the things they didn’t do.