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The Only Ones (Thirty Tigers/Cooking Vinyl)

“I don’t want to fight anymore, maybe you were right/I’m so tired … I don’t want to lie anymore, don’t want to waste your time”.

The close quarters struggle – or, you might also say, emotional appeal meeting reality - of the opening song, I Meant Every Word I Said, is not just intimate, it’s practically raw. As if you were sitting in the space between the once-were-warring couple, their breath on your cheeks.

Two voices and two guitars. Two voices letting the story unfold with elegance and the suggestion – rather than the ladling on - of a deep pain; two guitars in strum and pick that carry the sway but also the pricking underneath the words.

Like a Townes Van Zandt song that doesn’t try to land any punches, yet draws the air from your lungs, this is a tough moment in a soft package. And it’s also a message for the six tracks to follow on the EP-length The Only Ones: “take it as a sign,” as Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan sing.

The sign being that it is just Pattengale and Ryan: the only ones. This is a return to their signature arrangement of voice and acoustic guitar after the – wholly satisfying, varied and wings-spreading - full band sound of 2018’s All The Things I Did, And All The Things I Didn’t Do.

If it’s a return to first principles, it’s not a retreat. The songwriting here is strong, the playing superb, the confidence showing in subtle but effective ways that mark the record as a progression from All The Things ….

In the energetic, bluegrassy I’ll Be Gone, where Pattengale’s fingers fly confidently and you could swear there’s a percussive smack on the guitar body somewhere, there’s a pushing out of the boat as they sing “I won’t apologise, I’ve been hiding all my life/I finally feel that freedom on the rise”.

That goes even further in My Name Is Ana which repurposes the story of Ann Frank for a time of ICE raids on Central and South American families, of terrified children who “can read the warning signs” as easily as the neon lights and “sleep with my shoes on in case they come for me”. Timeless, yes, but “don’t forget about me,” the central character says.

It’s the most pointed part of a record with more political subtext than their previous work, but then the context of its making would make that a sensible, if not necessary element. That’s why the long shape of I Was Alive, a kind of Texas/Nevada desert song where the sonic balance between voice and instrumentation is tipped towards a night time blurriness, feels like it’s carrying a secondary story beneath its lyrics.

But even without the implied or stated surrounding world, the stories here work with layers of resonance. For example, in About The Size Of A Pixel - a gentle, early Simon & Garfunkel style moment which will be familiar to anyone who’s been listening to The Milk Carton Kids for a while - the truth or otherwise of feelings and need are sketched out in brief lines. “I could never tell, if the voice in my head is real … called myself a name that carries not shame”. The sting is low key, but it is there.

If that song suggests the man’s soul is withered and about the size of a pixel, I Was Alive finishes the album by flipping the pixel around – flipping the loneliness around. It’s a subtle shift at the end of an album of such subtle shifts.

“A pixel glowing in a child’s eye/See them laughing, I say goodbye/I miss you like the starry sky/ I look around and I, I was alive.”

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