The Milk Carton Kids - All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do Music Album Reviews
After years of making somber, traditionalist folk on dueling acoustic guitars, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan expand their palette on the duo’s most engaging and diverse record to date.
The traditionalist folk duo the Milk Carton Kids put Stravinsky’s adage that limitations set art free to the test. For years, they adhered to the strict parameters they established on their 2011 debut, Prologue: two acoustic guitars, their harmonizing voices, and nothing else. Even after the band began sharing bills with bubblegum folk groups like Mumford & Sons, their music remained thorny and somber. Onstage, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan perform their generally downtempo compositions with similar solemnity; dressed in funereal suits, half-facing each other, they make even their sunnier songs feel a bit gothic.
But All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn't Do finally signals a change: Pattengale and Ryan have loosened their restrictions, inviting a cast of session pros that includes Wilco’s Pat Sansone to add splashes of piano, strings, and thumping drums to their songs. The additions are often subtle—conceptually, they have more in common with Beach House’s quiet amalgamation of synth tones than with Bob Dylan going electric—but they have an outsized impact on the group’s dynamics. These songs continue the world-weary narratives of earlier tracks like “Michigan” and “Years Gone By,” albeit with heightened urgency: Pattengale overcame a cancer diagnosis and the dissolution of a long-term relationship before recording got underway. Paradoxically, though, the album crackles with newfound levity and muscle.
All the Things is the Milk Carton Kids’ most engaging and sonically diverse record to date. Unfortunately, most of that variety is front-loaded into the album’s first half. Opening track “Just Look at Us Now,” a rueful reflection on idealism that could easily have gotten lost on an earlier release, is powered by undercurrents of cello and lap steel that amplify its bittersweet memories. “Nothing Is Real” offers stale commentary on the dehumanizing effects of technology but is redeemed by an airy staccato piano and cheery percussion that compensate for its shallow sentiment. But, past the halfway point, the album’s lead single, “One More for the Road,” proves its least thrilling and most heavy-handed moment. No amount of self-deprecating commentary can change the fact that the 10-minute track is a lukewarm attempt at an opus. Bookended by an elegiac verse, the meat of the song is an almost proggy guitar interlude that never reaches a satisfying peak.
That may be because the duo’s skillful guitar interplay, which often sounds like an Appalachian take on the National’s syncopated riffs, has become so predictable. Some of the album’s most exciting songs scale back the guitars, making room for intricate vocal melodies. Pattengale and Ryan sing “You Break My Heart,” a woozy waltz in the vein of the Ink Spots, with such a playful sweetness that it can be easy to miss its mournful message. “Younger Years” successfully combines Townes Van Zandt’s cowboy grit with a burbling Simon & Garfunkel harmony. All the Things may only mark the first step in the Milk Carton Kids’ transformation—but, in eliminating so many of the constraints they once placed on their music, they have already crafted the richest, most accessible songs of their career.
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