Not every musical group that comes out of California has the flailing guitars of Black Flag or the warm pop vibes of The Beach Boys. The Milk Carton Kids, an acoustic folk duo made up of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, shatter these expectations with their fourth studio LP, Monterey. The record, which dropped on May 15, draws on gentler Americana influences for an album with a very American Heartland feel.
This is the band’s first release since being nominated for the “Best Folk Album” GRAMMY award in 2013. The Ashes & Clay, which is actually namedropped in the title track “Monterey,” received great critical praise for its superb interpretation of American folk conventions.
Here, the new music’s depth comes through in its lyricism rather than its instrumental aspects, which consistently remains at soft acoustic guitar plucking and strumming. Topics such as the narrator recounting his father’s final words in “Getaway,” and a lost friend dealing with tragedy in “Shooting Shadows,” act as strengthening pillars for the graceful musicianship.
Though the musicianship appears simplistic, the delicate guitar work suits the album’s more emotional focuses. In a very stripped-down Mumford & Sons manner, the lullaby-heavy record works more to soothe or pacify rather than empower or energize. Each song bleeds together nicely making for easily identifiable consistency. However, any change of pace or speed would have definitely benefited the group, as there are few distinctions between many of the tracks.
The few times in which Pattengale and Ryan, who both share vocal and guitar duties, do switch things up, their best work shines through. “Freedom,” for example, discusses the horrifying effects of war. There is no romanticism or glorification of such traumatic images and this alternative form of patriotism sets The Milk Carton Kids apart from their fellow folk community.
“Freedom,” is not the only instance in which the pair does not shy away from painting powerful imagery with their vocals. In “Secrets Of The Stars,” the duo sings, “All this time I lived inside a memory/Daylight creeping in through a crack in the weathered seams.” Supportive blending of the two’s voices here adds a dash vigor to a record desperately lacking in energy.
Polishing things off is “Poison Tree,” where both men’s superior guitar savvy becomes irrevocably obvious. Quick picking and airy melodies conclude the LP with a gossamer taste of slumping small town America.
While I’m not entirely sure this will earn the band another GRAMMY nod, the album is certainly a relaxing jaunt into the current acoustic folk scene.
In A Word: Delicate