Folk duo the Milk Carton Kids takes success one step at a time
Since forming in 2011, Americana/folk duo the Milk Carton Kids have released three albums, including 2013’s The Ash & Clay—and to hear Joey Ryan tell it, that album was the culmination of a gradual growing process that had been slowly building up on their first two records.
“The first thing [Kenneth Pattengale and I] did together was [2011’s] Retrospect, which was songs we’d written separately, and arranged for the duo and performed together,” he says. “And then [2012’s] Prologue was the first time we’d written together for the duo, but still, a lot of them felt like one or the other of our songs, where one person would take the lead and there would be harmonies on the choruses.”
Once it came time to write Ash, they had a very clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish, and how they would make that happen.
“We wanted to push the limits of the duo, so the vast majority of the songs on The Ash & Clay have two-part harmonies the whole way through instead of just bringing in a harmony on the chorus,” Ryan says. “And we’d given ourselves the mandate to be more outward-facing in the perspective we were writing from. [Many] of the songs have to do with characters which are not us, and point to various social or philosophical ideas, rather than introspective and emotional themes, like what we had done before.”
Ash is guided by an indelible sense of melody, both with respect to vocals and melodies. Whether it is the more upbeat folk of “Hope of a Lifetime,” or more measured, easygoing folk tracks like “Hear Them Loud” or “Memphis,” the album is a truly stirring piece of work. And even on “Heaven”—a dizzying track which is marked by groovy, funky notes, and Ryan and Pattengale singing at their loudest, sounding like a two-man Holy Ghost Party—they demonstrate their ability to get you dancing. It makes for a nice juxtaposition with some of the album’s more serious content, like the album’s title track, which quietly bemoans the sad state of affairs in America. Getting to explore broader themes than they had in the past—especially when they were solo singer-songwriters who were focusing largely on writing about their emotions and feelings—was freeing for the duo.
“It was liberating, motivating,” Ryan says. “I don’t think it was challenging. I don’t think [Ash] is a political record. Some of the songs are just about personal relationships and people, and there is introspection for sure, but at some point we just started to think of ourselves as teammates and we pushed each other in that direction. We welcomed the pressure and came up with some songs we wouldn’t otherwise have come up with.”
Despite the growth that Ryan and Pattengale display on Ash however, Ryan does not revel in their progress as a band. He avoids patting himself on the back almost to the point of being self-effacing with respect to the band. This unwillingness to draw attention to himself is perhaps what keeps him grounded enough to not buy into the Grammy-nominated band’s hype, or the fact that they were recently nominated by the Americana Music Association for Best Duo/Group.
“I think [the album is] a logical step, and not a big step, either,” says Ryan. “We still stuck with two guitars and two voices, and a lot of the basics of the dynamic between us are preserved. If you listen to Prologue and then The Ash & Clay, I don’t think it could be said to be a departure. It was a small step forward. It was what I expected out of us.”
The Milk Carton Kids will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 17, Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar Street, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25-$35. 427-2227.