Beautiful harmonies and subversive lyrics
In America they put pictures of missing children on milk cartons but Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale are anything but lost, they have been blazing a trail to success by sheer dint of touring. Ryan and Pattengale started out playing as a folk duo using two voices and as many acoustic guitars, an approach that has seen them release two albums and spend much of the last seven years on the road. Until this latest wordily titled release they had stuck with the established formula but reflecting changes in their lives; Pattengale had an operation for cancer and Ryan became a father, All the Things marks a broadening of their instrumental palette. The album features Hammond organ, drums, violin, pedal steel guitar and Mellotron alongside other instruments played by Nashville session musicians alongside Wilco’s Pat Sansone (keyboards).
Their sound has strong echoes of Simon and Garfunkel alongside the ‘quiet is the new loud’ style of Lambchop but with stronger Americana feel, this is a Nashville record in all but demeanour and lyrical content. The outlook is generally gloomy and world weary, but the way they frame the songs while hardly upbeat is not too miserable. It helps that they harmonize so beautifully, you can almost ignore the words when the sound is so appealing, but if you don’t you’ll find themes of regret (Just Look at Us Now), dissatisfaction with technology (Nothing is Real) and, naturally, heartbreak with lines like “You break my heart in all the right places” on the charming You Break My Heart.
The highlight is One More for the Road, a song full of longing and heartbreak that could have come from the long lost Gillian Welch tapes if they existed. It’s by far the longest track at over ten minutes, the other 11 rarely get to five, and the only one to feature an instrumental break. The lead throughout the album is taken by Pattengale’s finger picked guitar, the only instrument that gets any real focus, nearly all the other contributions float in and out of focus and usually stay well down in the mix. But you do get tantalising glimpses of a sax here, a big bass drum there and a little more Hammond and pedal steel.
All the Things is very much a construct of the studio, it wouldn’t be easy to reproduce the variable blanket placed over all but voices and guitar in a live setting, but it’s nicely recorded and not overly compressed. The voices work best when they are together, there are a few solo pieces in the second half but these are perhaps rather too like what has gone before. Milk Carton Kids’ USP is the combination of beautiful harmonies with subversive lyrics, when you take one voice away some of that appeal is lost. At their best with numbers like Younger Years where the Simon and Garfunkel vibe contrasts with an alt country sound All the Things is cleverly balanced to have an appeal above and beyond those influences.