First Impressions: The Milk Carton Kids, “Monterey”

“This record is, likmcke, the same as our last one, except it’s slower and sadder,” said Joey Ryan in a YouTube video announcing Monterey’s pending release. So they know what’s in their wheelhouse. They operate under no delusions about what they do well, what people love about them, and—in theory—what their detractors might quibble with, though it’s worth noting that I have yet to meet anyone who has heard The Milk Carton Kids and not been seduced by the timelessness and easygoing charm of what they do. Me? My only complaint is that they still haven’t worked the deadpan humor of their live show into their records. Otherwise, I think they’re getting better and better; they’re not stuck in a rut, they’re becoming more skilled and assured in their craft. As for Monterey, it’s mostly slow and mostly sad but actually gets its hair ruffled a bit more than the last one, so I guess I’m not quite on board with Joey’s self-evaluation. It’s a road album, and if you don’t believe it just look at the titles of the first three songs—one referencing “Monterey,” one referencing the “Asheville Skies,” one promising a “Getaway.” The songs were all recorded live on stages and during soundchecks; Ryan and the other Kid, Kenneth Pattengale, have never sounded more harmonious, even when they kick up a little bit of a spritely, finger-picked ruckus on “High Hopes” or quicken their pace for the gently locomotive “The City of Our Lady,” which does, by the way, begin with a line about a train. All the songs sound like they’re in motion. “Asheville Skies” is a vagabond’s getaway: “I’d love nothing more than to cover my face/ Forget who I am and get out of this place/ Pretend to be somebody other than me/ And go on living that way.” So they’re a band on the run, then: Growing up, coming to a crossroads, seeking redemption in forward motion. By way of compass they still remember some sage words from dear ol’ dad and even hear the voice of God on one song, though it’s debatable how much authority they ascribe to either. Pattengale goes solo for “Sing, Sparrow, Sing,” looking to the songbird’s warble to cover him against the world’s destruction, which is explained in a little more specificity on “Freedom,” in which we all have to ring the Liberty Bell a little louder to hear it above the violence of gunfire. They convey the roar of road life not through their arrangements, which are as simple and elegant as ever, but through songs that are filled with noises: Birds, bells, songs, moving vehicles, the music of motion. I generally worry about bands that make road albums—it seems like it’s usually the first step toward cracking up—but The Milk Carton Kids seem to have their heads on straight and take their eternal motion (close to 50 tour dates listed on their website, and that doesn’t even get us through Christmas) for what it is: A chosen life in pursuit of song, a getaway that is it’s own reward. I’m not worried about them at all.

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