Last night, (Tuesday, June 26 for those of you in the future), The Milk Carton Kids played a sometimes-stunning 22-song set at The Commonwealth Room. Touring in advance of new album All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do (out Friday, June 29), this was songwriting duo Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale’s first tour—and fourth-ever show—with a supporting band.
A quarter of the way through their show, there was a moment that spoke to what is so great and so frustrating about The Milk Carton Kids.
Joey Ryan took a moment to dedicate the show to fiddle player Jenna Moynihan’s grandmother who had passed the night before. He was telling a sweet and sad anecdote about the late Mrs. Moynihan when a drunk asshole yelled an unintelligible asshole-ism. Instead of ignoring him, Ryan asked the man to repeat himself. He didn’t. Ryan then asked, “Can someone get him out of the room?” The audience laughed. “I’m serious. Is there any security here who can remove him from the venue?” Whether the venue removed the man or not wasn’t clear, but Ryan recollected himself and finished his story.
Ryan was justified in asking the man to leave. He and Pattengale have a deep respect for beautiful moments with no tolerance for any irreverence that might puncture them. And, there were moments last night when they sounded ethereal and possessed—waves of fiddle, pedal steel, bowed contrabass and organ swirling around the duo’s trademark close harmonies. The still-new Commonwealth Room used a rotating disco ball which offered a Lynchian lighting to the space, making the sentimentalist soundscape of the band all the more surreal. Highlights like new song “You Break My Heart” pined in the same fashion as Willie Nelson’s earliest songwriting—a glance around the room revealed heads rested on shoulders. The band’s reverence for their art made for a sometimes deeply-felt experience.
With their best moments being sublime, it came as deep frustration that the band’s range also felt limited. Their knee-jerk disgust for disruption seems tied to a creative process that is so clean, intentional and airtight that a haze of sterility often hangs over their work. Like an oyster needs an intruder—a grain of sand or floating food—to stimulate its pearl-making process, The Milk Carton Kids—whose lyrics are clever but unrooted, whose melodies are lilting but indistinct—need a dissonance or conviction to invigorate their work.
The 22-song set felt like a cycle of “Wistful Song,” “Quiet Song” and “Wistful Song Pt. 2.” A 3-song stretch featuring only the core duo, Ryan and Pattengale, served as reminder of how much spirit the supporting band brought to the room. Without them, the show felt lackluster. The musicians onstage, especially drummer Jamie Dick (who also plays for the excellent Rhiannon Giddens), provided a spare, texture-oriented and much-needed drama to the music.
At their finest, The Milk Carton Kids coaxed the audience into a state of beauty-minded serenity. Other moments, they sounded dishearteningly germaphobic. Their talent is one that most bands desperately need—strong editing and a consistent creative process. Unfortunately, with no sense of impulse, no willingness for risk, they can sound one-note and detached. Thankfully, there’s a spirit of liveliness and precariousness on their new album suggesting that peaks will be higher and more regular in the future. You’ll even remember some of its melodies afterwards.