Monterey starts with a world in flames and closes at a graveside. In between, The Milk Carton Kids take us on a road trip across a dream - perhaps a nightmare - through an America of blood and fire that is at once recognizably the land of our forefathers, and the product of our own making.
Monterey is The Milk Carton Kids’ third album and the follow-up to their 2013 breakthrough The Ash & Clay. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan wrote and recorded Monterey not in studios but on stages - those concert halls, churches, and theaters across North America that have always coaxed the band’s most uninhibited expressions. Stealing minutes in the odd, uncertain lulls the road always seems to offer; recording in daytime hours on stages which would transform hours later into those familiar backdrops for their celebrated live performances; recording alone through the night in Nashville’s historic Downtown Presbyterian Church — their methodology in making Monterey allowed The Milk Carton Kids, finally, to perform for the record with the same fearlessness and spontaneity usually only achieved in live concert. Within the lyrics as well, this new album dwells in contradiction, as it chronicles the constantly moving tug-of-war between the freighted, immutable past and a tentative, uncertain future. This is a duo that feels comfortable in juxtaposition, creating their harmony from the friction at the intersection of opposites.
The two years since the release of The Ash & Clay have been significant ones for the group, with recognition including a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album and winning Group of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards. While some of their awards reference specific genres, the duo quickly transcends those tags with clear inflections of jazz, classical, even the dark lyricism of modern “alternative,” all broadening their appeal. The typical audience at a Milk Carton Kids concert ranges from 14 to 84. Sources as varied as Sara Bareilles and Garrison Keillor have cited the growing importance of the duo’s contribution, with the latter declaring them to be “absolute geniuses in close-harmony.” The political undertones in The Ash & Clay led musician and activist Billy Bragg to declare it his favorite album of 2013. When they rehearsed for T Bone and the Coen Brothers in the concert documentary Another Day/Another Time, Marcus Mumford cried on Chris Thile’s shoulder. At their second standout performance at Newport Folk Festival in as many years, Jack White made sure to listen from side stage. This past year, The Milk Carton Kids were asked to pay tribute to Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris — Cash on the Joe Henry-produced remake of “Bitter Tears,” and Harris with their standing ovation performance at the tribute concert “The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris,” among luminaries including Kris Kristofferson, Mavis Staples, Alison Kraus, Iron & Wine, and Harris herself. If Cash and Harris taught us that American music is meant to be taken at its expansive word, without confines or borders, The Milk Carton Kids appear to have taken the lesson to heart.
Sitting with Pattengale and Ryan to talk about the making of Monterey is like listening in on an old married couple who have reached the stage wherein they finish each other’s sentences, especially when they’re disagreeing. As both freely admit, they have very different approaches to songwriting: Joey the hyper-rational crafter of line and image, Kenneth the intuitive collector of found phrases and subconscious meaning, an inheritor of the surrealist cut-up method employed by modernists from Burroughs to Bowie. On the road, sitting around after shows in green rooms and hallways, these two opposites committed themselves to finishing and editing each other’s songs, Ryan catching surprising resonances in Pattengale’s imagist lyrics, Pattengale adding a sudden swerve to Ryan’s narratives. The results are a batch of songs where, for the first time in the band’s career, friends and family cannot tell who wrote what. In a profound way, Monterey is the album where Pattengale and Ryan achieve their singularity, embracing the harmony of their differences. “It’s a strange alchemy, when it works,” murmurs Ryan.
And yet, for all the attention the duo receives for combining into one voice, on Monterey we finally hear the singers as distinct. The acclaimed harmonies move farther apart so that the quirks and kinks of two individual identities emerge, the harmonies all the while remaining lush and soaring, their beauty even more apparent for the showing of their scars. On “High Hopes,” the sly humor in the chorus tagline is allowed full rein, while opener “Asheville Skies” features two independent vocal lines that feel less like harmonies and more like separate leads, swooping in unexpected directions like cinders rising in the night sky. The guitars too have found a new, looser meld. Pattengale’s leads, with their surprising leaps and modal skirtings, are now more confident and accompanied by a new sense of guitar and lyric in deep union. On “Getaway,” the lyric, “the soft roll of the water,” precipitates a cascading ripple of guitar notes, while Ryan points proudly to Pattengale’s work on the second verse of “Deadly Bells,” where, in the rare absence of vocal harmony, the guitar notes articulate the desperation of the main character’s “hanging on for life.”
Monterey shares with its predecessors an “intellectual sophistication,” as Paste Magazine put it, but where The Ash & Clay explored the socio-political landscape and The Milk Carton Kids’ place therein, Monterey is more personal, an album of unanswered questions, epiphanies that surface then disappear. Ryan admits to discovering a taste for the novels of author Haruki Murakami while on the road, and some of that writer’s vision of embodied shadows and the imprints we leave on the world creeps into the lyrics here. In “Secrets of the Stars,” the narrator admits
Any time my life flashes in front of me
I see a child there as if on a screen
Standing in the shadows flickering
For a moment I know what it means
Some of the questions asked on Monterey are still political, as in “Sing, Sparrow, Sing,” with its empathy for modern whistleblowers, asking for shelter from the surveillance storm as it wonders “who could be listening through the clouds?” Other songs straddle the personal and political, as when a ride on Los Angeles’s metro train sets off a meditation on the Mexican blood in the city’s beating heart in “The City of Our Lady,” with its hammer-home refrain, “Everywhere we go we are the child of where we came.” But increasingly the songs are purely personal, the narrator stopped along the road wondering aloud how he got there as in the lovely, lilting title track where the question becomes, “Monterey, how can I say I’ll always stay then slip away?”
This may be Monterey’s central question, this album forged literally and metaphorically “on the road”, which seems to ask how we can resolve the contradiction between the lightness of our footprint as we pass through, and the weight of those memories gathering behind us in the rearview mirror. Monterey asks these questions with grace, beauty and a knowing humor. And beyond all its depths, it’s a compelling listen on its surface, the extraordinary personalities of its two performers shining through in all their alchemy.