The Milk Carton Kids
3.5 out of 5 stars
Not too much has changed on The Milk Carton Kids’ third full-length. On Monterey, a fine if not revelatory album, listeners are still treated to the gorgeous close harmonies and acoustic guitar interplay of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale. Ryan, who sings lead, plays the rhythmic foundation that allows Pattengale to conjure all kinds of settings and emotions with his lead picking while he also sings high harmony parts. The gentility of this formula should continue to provide a balm for fans worn out by the more intense folk revivalists on the scene.
With this framework in place, it’s hard for Ryan and Pattengale to ever sound bad. Even when individual songs don’t stand out from the pack, there’s always a harmony swoon or guitar flourish that impresses. When they’ve got the songs to match the beauty of the presentation, the resulting music makes you sit up and take notice even as its hushed nature cools your jets.
On Monterey, songs like “Shooting Shadows” and “Poison Tree” saddle their narrators with a kind of indefinable malaise, yet Ryan and Pattengale make it a sumptuous angst. “Getaway” hints at the wounds of childhood lingering well past the initial sting, while “Secrets Of The Stars” waxes poetic for the unattainable ideal of love: “To love another helplessly/ So breathing feels like putting out a fire.”
The duo has a knack for affecting turns of phrases such as that, which helps offset the lack of finite details to ground the songs on Monterey. Besides, the intangible nature of the lyrics plays well off the weightlessness of the music. On “Freedom,” however, a welcome bit of feistiness creeps in, as the pair bemoan how the meaning of the title word has become distorted beyond all recognition: “Screaming as the shots ring out/ That’s what freedom sounds like now.” That outstanding track demonstrates that The Milk Carton Kids’ style evokes edgy frustration as exceptionally as it does quiet reflection.