Album Review: The Milk Carton Kids, 'The Only Ones'

by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley

After building a career on their intimate duo recordings, The Milk Carton Kids came out last year with a full-band effort titled All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do. That project showed a couple of artists willing to take a chance outside of the format that had been working quite well for them. Yet the magic that has always made them cut through the din of Americana trends was momentarily sidelined by their urge to see what they could do with other players—a respectable diversion of artistic curiosity that made for a lovely listen.

Then, earlier this year, they announced they’d be returning to their roots, such as they are, by releasing a collection of stark duo recordings and touring small venues with low ticket prices. The new recording, The Only Ones (out 10/18,) does recapture that rare duo magic, but it too is a stretch in a new direction.

Its seven songs zoom way in on stories about life, from lost love and longing to topics more socio-political and specific.

The Only Ones, from its title to its contents, calls upon the listener to dig into the little things.

The title track marks a contrast to the opening tune from All the Things, wherein the duo sang, “We wanted to prove we were something new … we knew in our hearts we weren’t the only ones.” Here, with more of a swing and swagger, on the other side of disillusionment, and apparently in the same key, they carry the theme forward. “Let’s make a ride out to the blistering sun … baby let's fake it like we are the only ones.”

The singularity of the word “only” with the plurality of the word “ones” is a fun juxtaposition to unpack—only slightly less lonesome and afraid than being the only one. Though the duo goes into that realm as well.

“My Name Is Ana” is a stunning modernization of the Anne Frank story, transposed to a little girl who “didn’t want to leave” where she came from, “and now I live in the attic with my family.”

“I Meant Every Word” is a lovers’ resignation, but the way the harmony drags out the line “I’m so tired,” one can’t help but wonder if it’s about something more. “I’ll Be Gone” is a good harmony-driven, bluegrass-influenced (though decidedly not bluegrass) tune about getting up and going.

And then there’s album closer, “I Was Alive”—far and away, the band’s best song yet.

Pattengale’s guitar work leads this one, thanks to his balance of art and dexterity. It could have been an instrumental but the lyrics come on their own, struggling to keep up, with their declarations of witnessed beauty and unexpected revelation.

The guitar moves from something low, dark, and whispery, to something riddled with infinite light and joy. It’s easy to read into this trying-to-follow-along, carry-your-joy-with-you theme at a time when everything from the news to the climate to our human capacity for change seems to be spinning at such a rapid rate. The message, perhaps, is that if we are to build a world of joy and opportunity, we need to at least keep up, if not outrun it all.

Whether or not that was their intended meaning, it’s a feat of songwriting at the end of an album that is beautiful, if not thematically cohesive. It almost doesn’t matter that it’s hard to specifically place Ryan or Pattengale in all of it. It’s just this guitar in the front, pulling you through the wild world. Follow it. You won’t be disappointed.

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The Only Ones is available for pre-order now at iTunes and Amazon.

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