Catching the folk wave
In a perfect world, when a group has a hit record, they can ride that wave for at least another record, and perhaps once again from the creative juices that have been flowing. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, the duo that make up The Milk Carton Kids, are not letting their momentum go to waste. Having just received a GRAMMY nomination in 2013 for Best Folk Album Of The Year for their third record, Ash & Clay, they have released a new record with an interesting pedigree and twist on the recording process. The self-produced Monterey continues the harmonies and minimalist folk music they are now famous for with more bravado and confidence.
The eleven-song collection is split both musically and in its recording technique. The duo chose to eschew the recording studio for a slightly more live element to their recording process. They did not go so far as to record themselves playing to live audiences and splicing the takes together, but they did opt for recording while on tour from the very stages they would be playing on that night in order to capture something of the feel they evoke in their live shows. Half the songs on the record were produced this way. The other half of the songs were recorded from one particular stage, that of the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, a technique also used recently by Patty Griffin. It seems The Milk Carton Kids are tapping into some of the country folk magic in the air in Nashville.
Musically the songs are split between more melancholy fare, particularly in the song “Freedom” which, if one is inclined to compare these two to folk duos of the 60s, is their version of a protest song for the modern age. It’s a somber eulogy for what the definition of freedom used to be for Americans and what they have determined it has become at this point. The sentiment is echoed in Joe Henry’s foreword to the record when he writes, “The world is too old to change; and death will meet those who cannot see the future in the past.” In contrast, we get songs like “High Hopes” with fast-paced flat picking that shows off their technical chops, and their ability to be joyous at other moments.
The songs showcase a perfect blend of high and low harmonies punctuated by expert guitar picking that owes a lot to David Rawlings’ style of playing but also takes on its own personality in songs like “Monterey” where we begin to hear hints of Latin influences in the tradition of boleros or Cuban love songs. It’s pensive music for a Sunday morning coffee or a long drive. Spare music indeed, but riding a wave of Americana.