It is always a great occurrence when a folk group plays in a way that is unashamedly dorky. Whether it is bluegrass groups like Old Crow Medicine Show or the impassioned, Dylanesque, Tallest Man On Earth, a folk act without a self-conscious is always a great listen. Such is the case with the Milk Carton Kids and their fourth full-length record, Monterey. This album is by no means mainstream, but it isn’t a cool indie folk album either. It is a mature album that features a mastery of folk guitar playing and vocal harmonising, and relishes in this. In this way the album is truly dorky; and unashamedly so.
The young duo will sooth your soul with their beautiful melodies on this record. They dance around each other, harmonising in a similar way that Simon and Garfunkel did fifty years ago. This is exemplified on the very mellow opener Asheville Skies. These melodies are very clever. Sequences are rarely repeated in the verses, but built upon. They regularly build by adding a flourish at the end of a sequence, or by enhancing the harmonies. This means that their songs are never repetitive or predictable. You end up listening to each line in excitement, waiting for what is coming up next.
The vocal harmonies are not the only valuable part of the Milk Carton Kid’s sound. Their guitar work is as complex and beautiful as the vocals. Kenneth Pettengale, is something of a lead guitarist, whereas Joey Ryan provides more of a rhythmic role. Pettengale’s licks often take on a flamenco (ish) quality. Picking around the chords offered by Ryan, the lead creates amazing melodies which, like the vocals, are unpredictable. Just listen to the track High Hopes. The lead bluegrass guitar gives the song a quirkiness and energy many other folk songs would lack.
The truly great thing about this record is that it truly is its own thing. Sure we can compare it to other great harmonising folk duo (like Simon and Garfunkel). But Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pettengale seem so creative with this album that, it doesn’t really sound like anything. I mean look at the track Freedom. “Screamin’ as the shots ring out that’s what freedom sounds like now”. The album may sound like a sixties folk album, but the very talented singers take that sound and plant it firmly in the 21st century, they are beggining to question many of the things developed by the hippies and protest singers.