More ‘Live’ Than They Can Ever Be, The Milk Carton Kids Willingly Bare All

The Milk Carton Kids | Live From Lincoln Theatre | (Independent/Anti)
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Despite a simple, straight forward sound that relies solely on the strength of two voices, spot-on harmonies, embracing melodies, and a pair of acoustic guitars, the Milk Carton Kids still manage to invite a myriad of descriptions. Call it unhinged eloquence. Smart Ass sophistication. Simon and Garfunkel reimagined as the Smothers Brothers. All are accurate assessments in some way, and they’ve never better realized than on their new pandemic-perfect offering, Live from Lincoln Theatre. The soundtrack to a DVD originally released in 2014, the album captures a performance taped over a two night stand in Columbus Ohio. It not only boasts a stunning array of early Milk Carton Kids standards, but also a generous sampling of their irreverent humor, which fans. Have come to recognize as one of their calling cards as well.

“For me, the Smothers Brothers comparison is the highest honor,” the duo’s long-haired half Joey Ryan replies when that comparison is raised. “Whenever anybody mentions that, of all the comparisons that we draw, that one is the one that makes me the happiest because I just think they were the best at it. It’s also part of the folk tradition. A lot of folk musicians were really great storytellers and very, very funny.”

That balance is also evident in the new album, and it’s clear that the two elements work as well in sync as the two men who are responsible for delivering them. “The idea of being funny between folk songs gives us this weird sense that the songs are good enough to stand on their own, and maybe the comedy is good enough to stand on its own,” Ryan muses. “But I do think it’s kind of missing the point in the end, which is they kind of play off each other and they work together. You have these completely earnest, heartfelt moments to contrast with whatever silliness is going on. And that’s what the Smothers Brothers did so well. They had a great amount of improv in their comedy and it was often very political and very astute and that is something that is really hard to do. They were doing a lot of difficult things really well. After all this time, we’re still talking about them. They were very influential.”

Speaking of impressions, Ryan feels obligated at this point in the conversation to apologize for a some noise heard in the background. His three year-old is hiding nearby, and despite Ryans’s attempt to isolate himself during the interview, his tack doesn’t appear to be working.  “If you hear some squealing, that’s what it is,” he warns.

No matter. Ryan, like his erstwhile partner Kenneth Pattengale, is well used to sharing some spontaneity. Indeed, as the new album suggests, those off-the-cuff moments are a signature side to the duo that fans have come to appreciate. Still, one has to wonder how much of that patter is planned and how much of it is, in fact impromptu Their spoken exchanges — in this case, discussions on aging, ampersands, notary publics, the pros and cons for dressing up for Halloween, and Kenneth’s future daughter — blend mirth with the music and allow their charms to seep through even further, with what appears to be ad-libbed entertainment.

“In general we like to leave room for both,” Ryan suggests when asked what part of the conversation is staged and what’s simply shared in the moment. “I don’t think we’ve ever written anything in advance,” he says. “Everything that we say always starts as a spontaneous exchange, and if we really feel like it’s getting at the heart of something, or augmenting the message of a song, or really punctuating the emotional peak of the show, or something like that, then we might return to it and flesh it out. But even when some stuff starts to crystalize, we always leave room for new stuff to come out every night. The story about Kenneth’s imaginary future daughter started as a kind of funny way to introduce a song, and it probably started with me taking the piss out of him. The ampersand bit seemed to fit in with the grammatical theme of our show, but it wasn’t something we set out to do. Yet it’s still indicative of our priorities and interests. It’s like the stuff with the notary public and the exchange that happened that night with the audience. That obviously was not planned and it just happened in the moment. There’s gotta be something like that every night, or otherwise we get bored.”

Still, one has to admire their courage. Gambles like that are always something that necessarily pays off.

“It’s a great tightrope,” Ryan agrees “But I will say that when I talk to our actual improv comedy friends, I feel in awe of them because we have this great safety net, which is always a song. So we can always bail. I’m in awe of actual improv people because we’re doing a very safety-netted version of it.”

While that may be true, that humor remains an integral part of the Milk Carton Kids’ rapport and, more than that, part of their signature sound. Again, that becomes apparent on the Lincoln Theatre recording. Ryan concurs.

“The show would be missing that part of the emotional spectrum if we just played the type of songs that we tend to write,” he surmises. “I don’t want to say it would be incomplete, because I go to a lot of shows where it’s nothing but music for 90 minutes. But we felt like we wanted to do more than that, which is why we added the other side of it.”

Of course, given the pair’s hushed melodies and their wistful reverence, it might be argued that nothing more is needed, given that those supple songs tend to find a fit with today’s Americana audiences.

“I feel that too, but also, I really don’t want to detract from the value of just that,” Ryan insists. “A lot of our friends will play a 90 minute or two-hour show, and it’s 95 percent just gorgeous earnestness. At this point, I’ll unequivocally praise some of our friends like Gregory Alan Isakov and Mandolin Orange, artists who can transport you to a myriad of different places just over the course of 90 minutes. They’re very earnest and they lean into the melancholic side of folk and Americana music. It’s just gorgeous, and I love it. Yet, we just wanted to do something different from that. We have these two sides to us. We have this side that is very earnest. We are very earnest and heartfelt, and we do care a lot about the people on the other side of the relationship with us, and what’s going on in the world and our society. But we also have a little bit of cynicism to us, and a side to us that looks at things a little bit darker, like from a tragicomic point of view. Leaning into the absurdity of that, and into the comedy, it’s a little truer representation of who we are when we can do both of those things.”

As previously noted, the origins of the new album were borne from what they hoped would provide some suitable home viewing, as well as a calling card that represented what the Milk Carton Kids were all about earlier on. “We filmed it and recorded it as a concert film,” Ryan recalls. “We actually recorded it as a DVD, as hilarious as that sounds today. In 2014, we were in the midst of a transition, and streaming was much less prevalent. It was on YouTube, but we were hoping people would watch it on their home theater systems…and they do. Every now and then, people post a picture of themselves with a glass of wine or a cocktail, and sitting down in front of their home theater system and enjoying it as their evening entertainment. And that’s what it was intended to be. We didn’t want to release the audio alone at the time. We believed the comedy was better when you can actually see us, which I still think is true. Obviously, the comedy album is a venerated format, but there’s something to be said when you can see the person talking. It adds so much context. So five years later, people are in quarantine, people need music to be released, we need something to release, and we’ve established a relationship with our audience now where we don’t feel we’re handicapping ourselves by putting this out as an audio album. A lot of the people who listen to this will know what’s going on, and it will give people something enjoyable to listen to during quarantine. It’s remastered, but otherwise it’s the audio from that concert.”

Ryan also mentions that they are currently preparing songs for their next studio effort as well.

“We’re writing now for that,” he affirms. “The place we ended up after our last two records was a collection with other musicians, and then it returned to the duo thing where there was literally no one else in the room. Kenneth engineered the whole thing, so where we landed was this really good sort of place where we just feel like there aren’t any rules anymore, and there shouldn’t be. So if I had to predict what the new album will sound like, there will be songs with just the two of us on there, and there will be songs with other musicians playing on them, and maybe some situations in between. I feel like we’re trying to liberate ourselves from those constraints which felt so good and worked so well early on. To be honest, it’s still our most comfortable way of recording live. When you’re in the studio you can allow yourself to break some rules.”

That of course begs the question of how best to make the connection between stage and studio and not detract from either. Given the fact that Ryan and Pattengale share the essence of their sound on stage and don’t necessarily have to elaborate on it with their albums, the challenge isn’t quite as difficult for them as it often is forother outfits.

“It makes for an easier transition to the stage,” Ryan agrees. “Joe Henry spoke so eloquently about this particular phenomenon. He’s encouraged us to not be beholden in a live setting to whatever happens in the studio. They’re totally different art forms that have their own strengths and weaknesses. And they can have their own valid interpretations of the same song which are completely different. Part of the reason we were able to establish ourselves so quickly early on was because we were so consistent. So when people heard our albums and then saw us on stage it was a true representation of what was going on in the studio. But I don’t think there’s anything sacred about that. As far as we know, people might love the live versions of the songs better.”

Of course, after nearly a decade of performing together and garnering multiple honors — no less than three Grammy nominations and the Americana Music Association’s nod as 2014’s Duo/Group of the Year — it would seem that the pair have given themselves a high bar to live up to. Nevertheless, for his part, Ryan opts to disagree.

“No, now that you mention it,” he says emphatically. “We’ve never considered that, but maybe we could have. We should have set a high bar for ourselves. I understand the instinct, but the only way we got to where we are is simply by doing the best we could do. So that’s what we do. And by the way, no matter how much acclaim you get, there will always be people who let you know that they dislike your stuff as well. So there’s enough there to knock you off your pedestal right away.”

Photo Credit: Daniel Mendoza

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