Until now, The Milk Carton Kids have been Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan alone but for their latest record they’ve gone for a full band treatment to fill out their sound. And it’s a lineup to die for, featuring, among others, Jay Bellerose, Pat Sansone, Russ Pahl and Dennis Crouch. Everything remains light-touch however and the duo’s twin vocal and acoustic guitars remain very much in the foreground. The pair have been through some personal changes too in the time since 2015’s hit LP Monterey, with Ryan now a father of two and Pattengale surviving a battle with cancer. Thus, ATTTIDAATTTIDD (even as an acronym it’s a ridiculously long title) sees The Milk Carton Kids reflecting on how they got this far, while simultaneously forging ahead with a new chapter to their story.
The waif-like, wistful and wise ‘Just Look At Us Now’ opens things up ever-so gently, an exemplar of the emotional and pure American Folk for which The Milk Carton Kids are so celebrated. With the navel-gazing over, they move swiftly on to Dylanesque social commentary with ‘Nothing Is Real’, lamenting the disconnection of the digital age before hitting us with the current single ‘Younger Years’. If the idea of Simon & Garfunkel soundtracking a Spaghetti Western floats your boat then you’ll be glad to be aboard. The resigned state-of-the-nation ballad ‘Mourning In America’ is cinematic in a different way, with beautiful upright bass and lush strings setting the scene perfectly. The song successfully melds James Taylor warmth with the ragged edges of Iron & Wine.
The old-west-waltz of ‘You Break My Heart’ sounds as if it could’ve been written a century ago while the ominous vocal harmonies and wailsome steel guitar of ‘Blindness’ create a dreamscape of desperation and regret, along with the invention of a new sub-genre: Eerie Americana. If it’s all getting bit heavy for you by now, man, then you better get right out of Dodge before the album’s centrepiece arrives. ‘One More For The Road’ is a soporific ten-minute epic, sprinkled with spaced-out trippy instrumental ramblings. It jars a little against the concision of the record’s opening clutch of songs and will be the make-or-break moment for listeners new and old.
A welcome lightening of mood comes with the mandolin, country fiddle and bounce of ‘Big Time’ with Ryan and Pattengale breaking out of the harmonies and turn-taking on solo verses. ‘A Sea of Roses’ returns us to melancholic intimacy and gives Russ Pahl’s pedal steel a real chance to shine. Despite being on the maudlin side of things, the song really hits the spot and paves the way for the quivering Hammond of ‘Unwinnable War’, a plainspeaking confession of yet more regret and yet more sadness. At this point there ought to be a health warning on this record: ‘not to be taken with alcohol’ should do the trick, though by now, for many, it is probably far too late. The croonsome harmonies of ‘I’ve Been Loving You’ come over all Everly Brothers and, at the risk of blowing the song’s punchline, the closing words on the chorus “I’ve been loving you… all wrong” will have you reaching for your fifth or sixth box of Kleenex, depending on what sort of a day you’ve been having so far.
Joe Henry’s flawless production ensures that all of this unchecked misery is balanced by a rich range of musical textures and it’s a testament to his over-arching vision that a record so thematically bleak can sound so varied and well-rounded when taken as a whole. The closing and title track ‘All The Things…’ is comparatively simple in terms of what has gone before and, with its exquisite bowed bass, feels fittingly like a lullaby. It’s a humble end to an ambitious record that could divide existing fans but could equally secure The Milk Carton Kids the place in the history of American Folk that they rightly deserve.
Review by Rich Barnard.