The Milk Carton Kids, ‘The Ash & Clay’ – Album Review
When most people hear the word "folk," it's doubtful that they think of the kind of music made by the Milk Carton Kids. The common paradigm resides closer to Bob Dylan, and as with punk, prettiness is less important than ideology. It's more a means of expression than a vehicle for showcasing musical chops.
The Milk Carton Kids come from a different tradition, where folk music can protest in a whisper, make you laugh as quickly as call you to arms and find quiet little corners of beauty to set up shop and invite you over. The group has been compared to the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel, but throughout their second album, 'The Ash & Clay,' Iron & Wine -- particularly on the song 'Each Coming Night' -- also springs to mind.
The two former examples are apt, and the references are thinly veiled in the harmonies that Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan strike. Ryan takes the the rootsy baritone, Pattengale the feathery tenor. These are the kinds of duel vocals where you can listen with each singer as the lead and experience a different song, like reading two translations of the same poem and finding different interpretations of beauty.
Musically, it's as simple as two acoustic guitars and finger-picking, but with enough rapid-fire chord changes and leads to avoid predictability. As the Kids evoke the sounds '60s counterculture on 'Hope of a Lifetime,' range country on 'Snake Eyes' and contemporary alt-folk on 'Heaven,' the word timeless -- however overused an expression -- seems wholly appropriate. The two voices become so entangled that the album's two stunners are the ones where they go it alone: the Springsteen-on-a-movie-soundtrack-ish 'Promised Land' -- which somehow wasn't one of the three 'Ash & Clay' songs included in the movie 'Promised Land' -- and 'Memphis,' the type of coffeehouse folk song that every coffeehouse folk artist is striving for.
The Kids are based in Los Angeles and known for their between-set comedy, and they recently opened for Grammy-nominated folk-pop superstars the Lumineers. Listening to 'The Ash & Clay,' you'd never guess these three facts. The album has a gentle grace that is difficult to imagine out of real people, and that's where the group falls short, at least on record. Lyrically, it's above average, but the songs are generally impersonal. They Kids don't make you feel like you've met the men behind the songs, like Paul Simon or Bob Dylan do. Lines like "It only takes a moment for a lifetime to go by," on 'The Jewel of June,' sound nice and have some truth, in a proverbial sense, but they're not particularly affecting. Hearing a faceless voice telling us life's lessons without any qualification or established trust is simply not how we learn or relate.
Whether too personal or not personal enough, Pattengale and Ryan don't use their talent for finding the right tone to deliver affecting melodies to its full potential. It might take some stories and details and nouns for these Kids to become men and push this nice music into classic territory.