The Milk Carton Kids are preserving folk music as they know and love it, whether it’s performing in their suits on stage, or keeping every song as simple as can be with just acoustic guitars and vocals. On their darkest record yet, Monterey, a follow up to 2013’s stupendous The Ash and Clay, they’ve tapped into that old timey, 1960s folk sound more than ever before. Their wispy, soft harmonies play out continuously from start to finish, as they sing their most grown-up songs yet.
Though at times Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan create a sound that’s a near exact replica of Simon and Garfunkel, they have still established their own voices in the folk scene. Spending the last couple of years touring constantly, these two have built up a sturdy following. Their onstage presence is funny, witty, intelligent and warm, and they put on a hell of a show, leaving crowded rooms so silent you can hear a pin drop. Their ability to be wholly themselves and still pay heavy homage to a duo that clearly influenced them is impressive.
The songs on Monterey are so smooth, and the harmonies so balanced, after awhile, Pattengale and Ryan’s voices begin to meld together as one. Save for “Deadly Bells”, every song is a constant duet, which makes this track feel especially fresh and unexpected. Paired with the anticipatory building of the acoustic guitar solo, it’s one of Monterey’s best.
The overall theme on Monterey seems to be one of regret, looking backward and feeling nostalgic for a past once escaped. Escapism shows up frequently on songs like “Asheville Skies” and “Getaway”, both haunting tales of crushed dreams and leaving your reality. The latter is especially gloomy, telling a tale of a haunted childhood and running from the past. “Remember how you used to think//You could salvage anything you found,” they sing. “I never found my getaway,” they continue, but you’re confident they have, in fact, found it in their music. This one is particularly poignant, as Milk Carton Kids have mastered salvaging the elements of classic folk music that speak to them. Lyrics about humanity and inward searching, and songs very much of a place and time, their music is proof that when it’s done right, simpler is better.
There aren’t really any upbeat foot stompers on Monterey. It can occasionally feel sleepy, but that never seems to take away from its beauty, and definitely keeps things dark. Even “High Hopes”, which picks up the pace a bit, is not fun or joyful. It’s a historic story of bloodshed, with whimsically forboding guitars.“Poison Tree” is the true standout on Monterey. It’s packed with power, even though it’s about a deep depression. It feels the most current and present in a collection of songs that are so much about the past. The title track is idyllic, but gloomy, as it describes a foggy, grey ocean landscape. The guitar solos often sound improvised, melodic but unpredictable, as if the two of them have completely lost themselves in their music. And as a listener, it’s especially easy to lose yourself when you hear their wistful harmonies.