Driven by the engine of Joey Ryan’s impeccably studied songwriting skills and Kenneth Pattengale’s awe inspiring guitar evocations, The Milk Carton Kids have found themselves occupying a space that hasn’t seen a lot of heavy hitters as of late. Oh sure, there’s The Civil Wars and there’s the ever present Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch (ostensibly the “godfathers” of the modern scene) but gone are the days when names like Simon, Garfunkel, Prine, Croce, Stevens — the list goes on and on — dominated the musical landscape. Which is not to say that Ryan and Pattengale are quite there yet, but damned if they aren’t on the right track.
Hilariously dry stage banter aside, the draw of The Milk Carton Kids music is simply how damn good it is. In talking about Toronto’s The Wooden Sky I said that there seemed to be a trend of bands simply trying to “do it right” rather than blowing your mind at each and every twist and turn, and the Kids are further proof of this theory. There was nothing in their performance that leaves you scratching your head. No “freak-folk”, “neo-folk” or “electro-folkaramasplosion”. Their performance at Jammin Java last week was a straight ahead, by the numbers, folk duo affair. What made it special was the attention to detail that Ryan and Pattengale have so clearly dedicated to their craft.
You would struggle to find a single note, harmony or lyric out of place in the group’s repertoire, even when the song is clearly the product of the songwriter working to find their way into their own music. For every song like the perfectly formulated “Charlie” (about Pattengale’s unborn daughter...unborn because he hasn’t found the mother yet) or Simon and Garfunkel-y “New York” there are songs like the slightly more ragged “Memoirs of an Owned Dog” that offer a brief peek into past of The Milk Carton Kids, that also informs where the duo will be headed in the future.
In our interview with Joey Ryan, I asked how The Milk Carton Kids came together, and initially I thought his answer of “We like to think it coalesces each night we take the stage, then begs for its boundaries to be pushed and redefined the following night” was just musician speak for “We hate that question”. But after seeing the duo now for a second time, I’d have to say not only do Ryan’s words ring true, but that really, all you need to know about The Milk Carton Kids is that they are constantly coming together, and nobody benefits more from that than you, the audience.
Which is why if The Milk Carton Kids happen to find their way to your town (this latest tour was sort of remarkably small) it should be a no brainer; Buy the ticket, take the ride. Their performance is simply a joy to witness. But the real joy going forward from this point is seeing how much better the duo gets over the coming years.
Prior to coming together as a duo, the two had 10 releases as solo artists between them, and in many ways The Milk Carton Kids can be seen as an evolution of those efforts. Joey Ryan’s lyrical tricks, turns and downright effective storytelling abilities, easily place him amongst the top tier of songwriters working today. Similarly, Pattengale’s staggeringly melodic guitar runs reveal an intuition in his playing that only comes with a deep love and understanding of what can be achieved with just six strings. It’s safe to say that both Ryan and Pattengale are masters of their craft at this point, but they are also dedicated to the further exploration of their craft, and that puts them in a class all by themselves.