Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Chamber Folks: All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn't Do

The Milk Carton Kids. (Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins)

In the prologue of Robert Hilburn’s new biography of Paul Simon, he tells the story of Simon’s early working method as a composer, relaying how “Simon took his acoustic guitar into the family bathroom, where the tile made the sound all the more alluring, and he turned off the lights so that he could relax and feel totally at one with the music . . . as he sat alone, these words eventually burst forward: ‘Hello darkness, my old friend.’” I’m going to review Hilburn’s book in a few weeks but I couldn’t help but think of this description in appreciation for the alluring and introspective music of The Milk Carton Kids, an American duo featuring Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan. Their new album on ANTI, produced by Joe Henry, has a long, explanatory title, All The Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn’t Do  which brought to mind William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” and it consists of twelve carefully written and arranged songs about adulthood. Ironically, the California duo has only been together for seven years, yet seem like old souls addressing the perils of aging.

Perhaps it was the album’s first single, released last April, that set the stage for this new release. A ten-minute song called “One More For The Road,” it features an instrumental section that aims to free up the listener’s imagination. It’s a break-up tune, but you’re never really sure if the break-up is temporary or permanent. They sing, “This world can be so cold, /  Before I let you go, just one more for the road.” Then they launch into an extended instrumental segment for the bulk of the song, returning with the final verse. There’s something about the ambiguity of “One More For The Road” that sets the tone for the whole album. That said, the pair certainly know irony when they see it and this record has that, too. 

One of the great joys of hearing the duo in performance is to appreciate their sardonic sense of humour. This was particularly unusual when I saw The Kids with Emmylou Harris in 2016, at Massey Hall. They shared the stage with Steve Earle, Robert Plant and Ron Sexsmith for a benefit concert in support of displaced refugees. Pattengale is the more serious of the two, while Ryan uses irony to express his quiet cynicism. Their personalities aside, The Milk Carton Kids take their music seriously and have been able to carve out a career with a sound that I would characterize as “chamber folk,” designed for intimate listening in small rooms. Until this record was released on June 29, Pattengale and Ryan only performed with their vintage acoustic guitars, providing just the right accompaniment to their exquisite sound, a variation on The Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel. But their songs are much more introspective, closer to “The Sound of Silence” than “Bye Bye Love,” and this album expands their palette.

The Milk Carton Kids performing in NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series. (Photo: NPR)

This new release (their fourth album since 2011) features a larger ensemble of musicians usually associated with producer Joe Henry, including Jay Bellerose on percussion and Henry’s son, Levon, on woodwinds. Joe’s been able to bring a larger expressiveness to the songs while keeping The Kids front and center. It’s this blending of sounds that makes for an articulate record full of grace and subtlety. Most of the songs have an inner pulse, an introspective feel about them that truly requires one to listen hard. This is particularly true of the aforementioned “One More For The Road” and the title track, a song full of regret for a fearful relationship that ends badly. It’s a deep tune that only could be written out of experience. And indeed, Pattengale’s seven-year relationship ended just as the duo was about to work on the new album.

But all is not doom and gloom; one of the collection’s highlights is the up-tempo “Nothing Is Real.” “Mourning in America” sounds like a present day update to Paul Simon’s 1967 tune “America,” intentionally reflecting The Kids' observations about the country's current emotional state. In describing the duo’s artistic vision, Pattengale summed it up in a recent NPR interview: “You do the best that you can. You follow your north star. You make sure there's nothing you'll regret. Then you start the lifelong work of accepting what you did as valid. I regret nothing.” Overall, producer Henry and his trusted engineer Ryan Freeland have done a terrific job with the sound of this album. The off-the-floor feeling of the music, recorded in Nashville in “The Sun Room” studio, is earthy, warm and honest. My guess is it was small.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He's the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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