album obsession: retrospect
Clearly, I haven’t really moved on with my life since the Joe Purdy/Milk Carton Kids concert last month. But I don’t think I can be blamed. I always play Joe Purdy in heavy rotation but lately The Milk Carton Kids’ album has been wearing my stereo out. Retrospect is a live album comprised of songs that The Milk Carton Kids, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, wrote and performed as solo artists before coming together last year to form The Kids. It’s really a testament to destiny how well this album flows. Pattengale and Ryan were born to sing together. Both talented songwriters and vocalists in their own right, their styles blend beautifully to create a fresh sound anchored in the tradition of great American music past.
The first song I heard them play, and the one I keep circling back to is “Permanent.” Written by Ryan it was originally released on his 2010 solo album Kenter Canyon. I’ve probably listened to this song 100 times since the show a month ago. The lyric is profound but accessible, and the sweet strumming melody is downright infectious. Oh, and watch out for that last line, it’ll get you.
But, the best thing about a great album is that every song on it is someone’s favorite. After the Austin concert I called my parents in Portland and urged them to get tickets for when Purdy and the Kids hit the Northwest a couple weeks later. They went, were blown away (naturally) and then in the midst of my love affair with “Permanent” and the repeat button I got this email from my mom:
Subject: okay I love this song
Entire Message: Milk Carton Kids ”Girls, Gather Round” Love it.
She’s on to something here,“Girls Gather Round” is a great track with a chorus that just begs to be sung around a campfire with good friends.
Though the guys introduced themselves onstage as the only music “more depressing” than Joe Purdy, the songs on the album really run the emotional gamut. While several do trend toward melancholy the album is infused throughout with a levity from both the songs and the banter between the two of them captured from the live performance. That deadpan banter with the audience really is a highlight of their live shows as well. Between songs at the Austin show Ryan announced that Pattengale was going to be a father. The announcement was greeted with a roar of applause from the crowd. When the applause died down Ryan added that he was just waiting for the right woman to be the mother. The crowd that had just recast the man before them as a soon-to-be-daddy erupted with laughter. The punch line of that exchange turned out to be the subject of the next song. The darling “Charlie” is an open letter to Pattengale’s future daughter. After promising his undying love and imparting his fatherly advice, he tells her that he just needs to go and find her “a nice mama.” After this tour I’m sure he’ll have a long list of women willing to apply for that spot. Nothing melts a lady’s heart like the sweetness of daddies and daughters, even hypothetical daughters. . .
While “Charlie” is clever and charming, Pattengale’s standout vocal on the album is “Laredo.” With the delicacy of spun sugar but none of the sweetness, “Laredo” made a huge impact on me at the concert. Played live it is the kind of song where you realize when it’s over that you haven’t taken a full breath in five minutes. Pattengale’s voice barely touches down, dancing suspended over the somber lyric.
On the other end of the album’s wide spectrum, demonstrating the variety and range of two guys with their vintage acoustic guitars, “Like a Cloak” is a jubilant toe tapper belted out by Ryan. There’s something so very reminiscent of a Rick Danko vocal in this number. With the skillful use of crescendo and the frank emotion in Ryan’s voice this song could almost be the flip side to The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.”
Retrospect is a fantastic piece of recording. It is a worthy showcase of the considerable talents of this duo. And you really have no excuse not to give it a listen, it’s available for free download from their website. Or you can do the honorable thing and drop the $10 for it. I guarantee you, it will bring you way more than ten bucks worth of enjoyment.
If you’re like me though and find that having just 14 songs from these guys is not enough, fear not. I am eagerly anticipating the upcoming release of their first studio album, and the fall tour that they keep alluding to on their Facebook page… Whenever they’re back in town, I’ll be there.
The Milk Carton Kids are still on tour with Joe Purdy, the second leg of the This American tour kicks off in Nashville on June 8 and will travel east from there. Get out and see them!