All words by Molly Beauchemin.
As I watched Kenneth Pattengale writhe in blissful music-making catharsis, I found myself smiling over the way in which his brow furrowed in concentration as he plucked the strings of his acoustic guitar, and the way his eyes half-closed as his shoulders shrugged and heaved in ecstatic harmony with each honeysuckle note that he seemed to be releasing from some emotional reservoir within.
Uninhibited passion crept tenderly across his face, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere as his fingers sent twinkling chord-gasms floating into the quiet atmosphere, wafting through the air in tiny, glimmering fragments, enunciated and whole, like shiny bubbles that transfix and captivate before bursting delicately into mid-air oblivion. Such is the weight of The Milk Carton Kids’ music: so light and fragile, so preciously delicate, gentle, and tenderly-produced that its makers take on the role not just of curators but as lovers of sorts – musicians who dote over their craft and delight in its precise sonic execution – to such a degree that the intimacy becomes palpable to the audience: this band really loves to create music, and by God, Kenneth Pattengale was making love to that guitar.
Joey Ryan also had his moments: matching the poignant acoustics of his only other band mate, he sent a trellising tenor into the frothy mix of acoustic melodies and the layered, two-part vocal harmonies that define the duo’s music; the Simon to Pattengale’s Garfunkel, I watched him, too, lower his eyelids and float out into the sea of his own rhythm, seemingly cleansed by every song. On stage, the two seemed to escape for moments at a time, getting lost in the coruscating wonder of their music’s gorgeous simplicity. The audience at 92Y was so quiet and enamored that they clung to every note like each was a secret totem ready to reveal to them some untold truth about the universe, the music-makers sounding less like New Americana and more like Pete Seeger and Neil Young had a hymnal sing-a-thon around Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s campfire.
This was my first introduction to the LA duo known as The Milk Carton Kids, a folk band that you should Google when you finish this article. The band consists of two vocalists and two guitars: Joey Ryan, who plays a 1951 Gibson J45, and Kenneth Pattengale, who plays a 1954 Martin 0-15. They are a group that you probably haven’t heard of yet, but one that will strike you as sounding immediately familiar, and not just because of the nu-folk renaissance that the Civil Wars, Fleet Foxes, and The Tallest Man On Earth have all helped pioneer as of late, though they strike the same (nylon) chord. Two songs into their performance last night, I realized that I had witnessed their sound before, a style of music defined by sparse acoustics, lovingly delivered and layered with lyrical wisdom. Certainly, this is the folk tradition: cadence, depth, and understated dimension, with a few notes that invite immediate, thoughtful introspection.
But why was I comforted by The Milk Carton Kid’s sound so immediately? Why did I feel so at home in this show? Their music transported me to an empty room in the caverns of my mind – to a room with a rocking chair and an ocean view, where yellow sunshine streaks through a skylight and betrays the dust mites swirling above waterlogged boxes of childhood memories. The sensation was peaceful, and the image invoked something like wanderlust, with undercurrents of déjà vu.
I haven’t ever been to that room before, and I hadn’t ever seen The Milk Carton Kids perform before, but both circumstances were familiar and comforting. Why? I started ruminating on this impulsive realization, and it didn’t take me very long to figure it out.
I arrived at 92Y TriBeCa regrettably late, just a few minutes before the start of The Milk Carton Kids concert, thanks to the cosmic collision of a failed set of Hop Stop directions and a heinous subway imbroglio that cost me more time and money than I was willing to pay after sitting at a computer in Pitchfork’s HQ all day. Stumbling in wedges that were too cool for me to wear for that long, I sought refuge in the press corner until two young guys clad in three-piece suits stepped out from behind the stage curtain, each shouldering a road-worn acoustic guitar. There was a mauve snakeskin briefcase set upon the tiny end-table set up between where Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan positioned themselves under the lowlights of “The Main Stage” at 92Y (a beautifully backlit, intimate venue shrined in red velvet curtains) – and it was the kind of dome-capped, lunchbox-like tote that one imagines a doctor in the 1950’s carrying around as he made house calls.
I wanted to know what was in that briefcase, which smacked of bygone eras and Woody Guthrie’s train-hopping lore.
But then Joey started talking, and in that moment, all allusions to folk’s first wave were shattered by his undeniably modern geek-humor. Including everything from jokes about punctuation to an implicit Mitt Romney diss, his wit was drier than a Saltine in the desert:
“So, we are The Milk Carton Kids,” he mouthed in unapologetic monotone, from underneath layers of feathery, glasses-dusting brown hair, “and the fact that we named ourselves after one of our own songs is, interestingly, not the most self-reverential thing we’ve ever done. But it’s up there.” He continued, amidst the crowd’s stirring chuckles, “We have a song called ‘Milk Carton Kid’, which, the astute observer will notice, is the same as our band name, except in the singular rather than in the plural form [more laughter from the audience] and without the preceding ‘The’.”
Grammar jokes, herewith established, would become a continuous theme of the evening.
The band’s “creation myth”, Joey then explained, was simply a lead-in to the song they were about to play, which was in fact the moniker-inspiring “Milk Carton Kid”. And after fine-tuning and syncing their guitars, (which Ryan and Pattengale insisted on doing before every song, making intense eye contact in the process) the duo then launched into the first few notes of this sprangling, alarmingly poignant track:
“This don’t feel like home anymore/ nothing’s familiar when I walk through my door,” they sang, assuring me that the show would be cathartic, “So I thank the Heavens or whoever’s in charge/ this don’t feel like home anymore.”
This was the kind of jarring, heartbreaking message that they used to open the show. Imagine, then, where it went from here: through a soundscape of meandering nostalgia and heartache, the music traipsed through fields of dreams and things imagined, each song telling the story of an ambiguous someone’s sordid past while the harmonies, gentle and ambient, danced on the periphery of an Everly Brothers’ lullaby.
The lyrics were hauntingly beautiful, expounding on everything from the memory of an enigmatic ‘she’, who “stood beside me at a football game/ and I knew that I loved her before I knew her name,” on “Milk Carton Kid,” to advising a daughter that has yet to be born…or conceived: “Charlie, there’s just one little thing before we meet some lovely spring/ I’ll have to go and find you a nice momma/ she’ll be just like me and you, perfect in just what we do/ a love as strong as father and his daughter,” from “Charlie.” The introspective lyrics were enough to make you reevaluate your own life’s myopia; if only it’s vicissitudes were as beautifully sound-tracked as these songs, which burst of twanging singular notes powerful enough to strike you in that gorgeous emotional place that’s simultaneously shelved behind your eyes and deep inside your chest.
The real beauty of the show, though, came from the fact that each song would bring you to such emotional depths, and yet the banter in between songs was so light, lifting and hilarious – I mean truly, jarringly funny. The show encapsulated the full emotional spectrum. The humor came mostly from the mild-mannered, brotherly antagonism between Joey and Kenneth, who subtly instigated each other with dry remarks about the other’s wandering banter. After playing a song called “Hope of a Lifetime,” off of the band’s upcoming fourth album, Joey began to explain the title for the next song that they were about to play – a song called “Years Gone By” – when Kenneth interrupted him to say that we (the audience) were probably not interested in hearing about it.
In response to Kenneth’s remark, Joey, whose humor came from the fact that he never broke his straight-faced intellectual character, said: “actually, I was just going to explain that we tend to pick song titles not from the most repeated lyric, which is how most songs are named, but instead from the lyrics that embody the song most wholly,” and as he shot Kenneth a feigned reproachful look, he continued, “I bet you didn’t think that that was going to be my fucking answer now, did you?” Both boys then lapsed into giggles, and the audience wasn’t far behind.
The rest of the set made room for songs like “Permanent,” off of 2011’s Retrospect, which included perspicacious reflections on human nature: “everybody loves something new/ ‘cause you can open it and plug it in,” they sang, before delivering an apt assessment of how this instant-gratification seeking tendency can leave us feeling empty: “I want more than a receipt for what I paid”.
Other songs, like “Girls, Gather ‘Round” had an early-Dylan feel, perpetuating the travelling troubadour mythology of early American folk, Kenneth swaying with the sense of his own gravity to a campfire song without the kitsch: “girls, gather round and let that long hair down/ I’ll sing a song I learned out on the road/ let us have a drink but still, by God, don’t let us think about the things/ that we ain’t never gonna know.”
Notes were spilling from each guitar, and the balance of showmanship made it difficult to tell who was Simon and who was Garfunkel amidst the sleepy two-part harmonies: the duo consistently alternated singing leads, as Joey, whose voice invites comparison to Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, rang melody from the top of his head for “Michigan,” while Kenneth, who is more grounded vocally, moved through the withering admonitions of “Maybe It’s Time.”
The duo continued to perform other new songs like “Honey, Honey” (“with a comma between each ‘honey’,” Joey informed us) and “The Ash & The Clay” (in which “the ‘And’ is an Ampersand,” he added.) Every acoustic daydream ended with a strum that melted each song into its own conclusion – silence – as the last few notes exploded luminously like fireworks in a silent film. The atmosphere at “The Main Stage” was so serene that the loosely bundled laughter between songs would have seemed incongruous had the comic relief not flown so naturally from the performers.
Its safe to say that the familiarity of The Milk Carton Kids, then, comes not so much from their lack of uniqueness but from the profound respect and virtuosity with which they approached the Great American Folk tradition – a genre of music that’s been consistently remade and repackaged for almost a century now. In formulating their approach to music, they could’ve gone in the direction of nu-folk, adopting the stylistic features of the folk genre while liberally applying the techniques of modern sound engineering and the existential thoughts of a troubled modernity. But instead, they stayed true to Folk’s roots – even wearing those three-piece suits on stage — which makes it hard to tell if this is a band from 1940 or 2012.
When the band plays “Michigan,” explaining how “the clouds move over Pontiac skies/ their silent thunder matches mine/ I know this feeling from long ago/ I wondered was it gone, but now I know,” I’m convinced that they were driving down a lonely Midwestern road when they wrote it. As they continue singing, “so when she calls, don’t send her my way/ When it hurts, you’ll know it’s the right thing/ Michigan’s in the rear view now,” I’m certain the car is a 1950 Buick Sedan…with a well-worn but empty passenger seat. By the time they reach, “What am I supposed to do now/ without you?” I’m so convinced it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard that my impulse is to want to jump onstage and shake them, like “pull over and turn around, you fools!”
Though luckily, I have more composure than that.
So when Kenneth and Joey round out the opening set with the foot-stomping “I Still Want A Little More,” I also refrain from grabbing my partner and dosey-doeing, though the instrumental implies that I’m obliged to do so. The audience then stands in applause while the two embrace, bow together, and leave the stage only moments before returning to do an encore, which begins with another new song, called “Snake Eyes,” a resplendent and full ballad. This was the kind of music that its easy to ‘think’ to, and I found myself getting lost and drifting back to the present, forgetting where I was and then returning. We exist in the age of the electronic studio tool, which isn’t always a bad thing (this is the innovation that gave the world Radiohead, after all,) and the Lord is certain to forgive us for our synths — but sometimes we’re so ‘dubbed’ out of our minds that its nice to just bask in the simplicity of a few discerning guitar strums and a story about a girl.
Chests lifting and heaving with the passion of playing, Joey and Kenneth achieved an effective symbiosis with each other and with the music they produced, and appropriately, their last song left us with imagery of equanimity, peace, and quiet, which settled in after the final lyric, “Graceland is a ghost town tonight.” The Milk Cartons Kids and their guitars captivated every audience member of the chic and deceptively spacious room in 92Y TriBeCa; and with one final melodic flourish, their fingers dancing down each fret, it was over.