The Milk Carton Kids: ‘We Never Put a Lot of Thought Into What Our Sound Would Actually Be’
Referring to the Milk Carton Kids as “cutting edge” or “groundbreaking” would be an insult to the roots of country music; claiming the band’s influences stem from the legends that came before them slights Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan’s accomplishments.
Simply put, the band, undefined by a genre, an era, or even by a specific emotion, is what it appears on the surface: There is no objective, pedigree, narrative or plan — they just are.
“We never put a lot a great deal of thought into what our sound would actually be,” Ryan confesses. “The results were always just an attempt to make our records sound like we sounded live. This is true of the themes of an album as well. It has never really been like us to give a theme to a record. Nothing really ties it all together; however, there have been people who have laid a frame around our work. There seems to be a sense of grappling with life in our work. Like the present moment seems to be slipping from our grasps and life seems fleeting. There’s always a fear that nothing we do will matter or last.”
Despite the heavy-handed overtones of their latest album, Monterey, there is a lightheartedness that accompanies the band. The greatest example of this is the manner in which the Grammy-nominated duo flawlessly intersperses elements of “roastmaster” comedy — iconically reminiscent of Minnie Pearl and her Hee-Haw colleagues, June Carter Cash and her satirical one-liners or the Smothers Brothers infamous witty-banter — into a setlist of sad, poignant storytelling.
It is the band’s ability to dabble in diversity that makes its mass appeal possible. With enough alt-country flare to capture the hearts of fans of Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Civil Wars and Ryan Adams, the doors of the Ryman should be wide open to the pair; but Sufjan Stevens fans could rest comfortably with Prologue’s opening track “Michigan” — this credibility helps the outfit pique the interest of the indie rock generation. Fans of Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan can find a familiar vibe in tracks like “No Hammer to Hold” (again from Prologue) or the title track from their sophomore album, The Ash & Clay.
Modern popularity becomes feasible when their catalog is viewed as a unified collection.
Monterey‘s opening track, “Asheville Skies,” walks a tightrope of beauty and heartbreak. With blended vocals reminiscent of their blended careers, Pattengale and Ryan’s signature voices paint a sadness secondary only to their story. The narrator confesses to his desires to “pretend to be somebody other than me and go on living that way,” only looking back in hopes of having someone “tell me whatever came of what I left behind.”
Haunting in its raw honesty, “Asheville Skies,” paired with the following cut, “Getaway,” deliver a one-two punch in the gut of those on the receiving end of the dialogue. Softly and directly, the band slices the heart of the listener, inflicting tiny paper cuts with pages from the lyric sheets.
Haunting throughout, the album is tinged with a ghostly element of abandonment. “Shooting Shadow,” for example, highlights a vulnerability rarely displayed publicly. As the song’s narrator opens his heart to the party for which it is intended, his exposure and self-awareness possess a razor-like rawness, which is able to worm its way into the heart of the listener.
“There is a tendency to get really precious about a performance when you’re in the studio,” Ryan tells us. “There is this intense hyper-focus. We wanted recording to be a little more fearless, a little more … inventive like we are live. We are very comfortable on stage. We’ve only been in the studio four days per studio album … so eight days total compared to something like 500 days of shows, so we wanted to make an album that is more contextually similar to what we’re like every night.” This element makes the songwriting even more sobering. With a feeling of confession, the lyrics run through the listener as though they’re being delivered for therapeutic purposes rather than for album sales. “Shooting Shadow” highlights that in a way that no track has in 2015 — my apologies, Sufjan fans.
The result is an record that sounds like the band is playing on your couch rather than crafting inside a studio. Their unconventional approach of recording in buses, empty venues and churches along the way, makes Monterey the most honest album that could have been made.
It is for this reason that the Milk Carton Kids should have no fear that what they do will matter or last. It will most certainly stand the test of time.