I was first introduced to the Milk Carton Kids when they opened for Over The Rhine at the Englert on Sep. 24, 2013. It was a Tuesday. I had spent the weekend watching my grandfather, whom I loved deeply, die and become deposited in earth next to his wife. Given that context, the Milk Carton Kids were the perfect balm: the sweetness of their performance, the simple joys it yielded, spoke to me. It was restorative.
May 27 allowed me another chance to see them perform in that same venue. Watching a performance for a second time is, or perhaps should be, very different from the initial experience. A good performer can find you where you are — happy, sad, indifferent — and provide a sensory setting that excuses you from the everyday cares anchoring your personal experience. For the philosophically inclined, a second encounter allows you to recognize and appreciate the immediate delights, but also think past them to ask background questions: What is it that makes this performance good?
Anyone who has heard the Milk Carton Kids senses part of their appeal. They embody precision: an expertly timed interplay of ten fingers, twelve strings and two voices. The effect for those not primed to like harmonies over acoustic guitar, when moderated by external speakers, or even headphones, is something light and ephemeral. Watching it in person, as Joey and Kenneth (as they refer to themselves on stage), provides something more worthy of awe. Their stage is almost empty, holding only two water bottles, a single microphone and a stool. The function of the stool is to hold a leather valise that Kenneth Pattengale carries onto the stage, opens, and carries out with him at the end of the show. Without lights or other instruments, the audience is encouraged — perhaps even compelled — to focus only on them. They make it easy to do so, standing so near to one another that the fingers of one guitarist end up reflected as a ghost hand on the other guitar. Joey Ryan is taller than Pattengale, and stands stick straight as he plays. Glimpses of his face beneath his endearing flop of dark hair show limited expression, something that approaches the presentation of boredom (but one senses that this appearance is only that — an appearance — as he hits each note perfectly).
Precision, I realize, is something that we tend to value in performers of all sorts. When I watch the Hawkeyes play football or basketball, I’m most enamored of running plays whose execution in space and time explodes in a harmonious burst of moving parts. The same is true of the wrestling team, as each competitor wishes to move his opponents’ body precisely. The Hawkeye volleyball team plays best when they have precision, each player moving into a predetermined place. Baseball, even, is miraculous to this extent: human bodies moving relative to a random factor with a perfect and precise sense of timing — to hit the ball over bricks and ivy, to stretch out to snag a throw to second base and instantly launch it to first — is human excellence at its best.
Precision on its own is admirable, but seeing it contextualized in the creation of beauty (rather than mere physical prowess) is, at least for me, even more remarkable. It’s one reason why I enjoy music as an art form: Each performance occurs only once and disappears instantly into the past. I am not of the school that wishes to record a performance on audio or video, as I’ve found such recordings to be only the faintest echoes of what appeared, moment by moment, during the time of a show. As patrons of live theater or live readings realize, the magic comes when watching a performance occur in real time — and seeing the performer realize a pre-planned vision in real time.
The whole of the Milk Carton Kids act is a performance or pure precision, and the joy of seeing them live is watching the mechanics of this performance at work. When I first saw them, I was too lost in the ways that their voices slid near to each other, the precise way that they emphasized volume, pitch and the sound of language. This time, I glimpsed a larger sense of their performance, which started when Ryan came onstage to introduce their opening act, Margaret Glaspy. Such introductions of an opener from the main act are very uncommon to begin with. Tying it to a brief stand up routine (with comments about the weather and regional and geographical differences, delivered with eloquence) is more unusual yet. Ryan plays his own straight man well, providing deadpan delivery that’s self-aware in being hyperbolically self-dispossessing. It’s a good routine that fits him well, and the Milk Carton Kids build this into their act as the two singers speak to each other.
Humor also demands precise timing when performed. What I had interpreted as breaks between songs (the performance) during the first show I now realized were part of the band’s overall performance. Periodically, Ryan will speak into the microphone as Pattengale steps back to play guitar, listening earnestly as a visual stand in for the audience. No matter how ridiculous Ryan’s comments might be, Pattengale listens attentively, not laughing, playing his guitar. This Englert performance revealed how both perform continually throughout the show, taking different roles. There’s an intimacy involved in their collaboration: they draw near to each other in their respective strengths. The awe-inspiring pace of play and precision of the vocals, however, require a trust and dependence on the other that is merciless and unforgiving. The pace and pitch, the knowledge of lyrics, the volume, is so perfectly attuned with the other that it presents the audience with a model of how to work alongside another. It is an intimacy where neither person disappears into the other’s shadow — and, joking or not, such work is no laughing matter.
As they performed, I realized that their appeal transcends mere timing, a quality any technician can master with practice. They also are personable and charming — They still looked like “kids,” three years later. This fact is aided by a self-presentation of a certain kind of “adorable” rooted in a Platonic ideal of a doting grandmother’s affection. They’re clever, well-dressed, well-behaved, erudite and seem well-mannered. Perhaps it was partly this that led to the Englert’s crowd that night — I saw young kids and old couples with a blend of beards and business attire that showed how the Milk Carton Kids transcend simple demographic appeal. But this kind of adorable is blended with what appears to be a genuine sense of respect that each has for the other. In a way, they become adorable as they adore each other.
At the same time, the Milk Carton Kids are not playing for each other. This intimacy is a performance as well as each other component of their show. Like Father John Misty, who performed at the Englert in 2015 with a similar sense of stage presence and ironic humor, the Milk Carton Kids are responsive to their audience and the surroundings, able to improvise beyond the script in ways that enhance, rather than disappoint, the crowd. Unlike Misty, who drenches himself in faux-rockstar distance, the Milk Carton Kids provide an appearance of intimacy, as if they were still the dreamy sorts of young men who were the secret crush of every other shy student in the school. This adds to a sense that their music is timeless. They comment with apparent disdain on how they are compared to Simon and Garfunkel, but defang this truth by making jokes about how Ryan — the taller one — is the Garfunkel of the group. The truth of the situation becomes the target of a joke, of humor, delivered with a seemingly effortless and yet perfectly precise sense of timing.
I’ve brought up Father John Misty mostly because Misty’s style of hyperbolic, ironic self-performance is akin to much of the Milk Carton Kids in an underappreciated way. I would argue that irony — often delivered through meta-commentary that creates the appearance of distance between the two performers (such as when Ryan suggests he’ll be playing lead guitar for a song, jealous of Pattengale’s abilities, or when Pattengale says that being able to play guitar like Ryan is an easily accomplished task) — keeps the precision and intimacy from becoming too precious, too sickeningly sweet. Without this ironic distance from themselves and the singer-songwriter-folk-acoustic-duo “type” that they inhabit with wry detachment, they would be unbearable to listen to: Their lyrics, including gems like this verse from “Stealing Romance,” would feel stifling and insufferable if delivered straight: “Why feel foolish? we’re smiling/A grade school romance with wine/I’ll be the tick-tock in your wristwatch/Be mine”
It’s almost too precious for words: the image of well-dressed white lads strumming guitars and singing simple metaphors that suggest love. This metaphor is particularly apt to the whole of their performance — it merges intimacy and precision in a lovely way that opens to the other as an invitation to join. But at the same time it is a relatively banal, harmless image. It’s safe. Perhaps this is the cost of their precise vocal and guitar interplay — they need to have relatively simple lyrics, often delivered with a light humor that never succumbs to the temptations of parody, that will allow the audience to attend to the medium rather than a distracting message.
One of the more memorable moments in the performance — one that I believe gives the clearest picture of the mechanism behind their show — emerged after Ryan delivered his comments on becoming a new father. After the audience was done laughing, Pattengale said: “And now here’s our song about death.” The audience laughed again, and they played a sweet song that held the audience rapt. The change between registers is made possible by the fact that these strands are always held in tension between them — beauty, intimacy, nothingness. To name one thread, or another, simply isolates it against the backdrop of the others in place. We can laugh, but we’ve known the truth of them all along.
All of this, of course, suggests that a Milk Carton Kids performance is complicated — and it is. They weave together beauty, intimacy, precision, and humor. The intimacy is a coming together that remains self-aware at maintaining a respectful distance. The beauty is something that stands out from the humor, which is delivered in a deadpan way such as to target nothing and nobody at all. The humor — and the nihilistic undertones of it — allows the beauty to emerge in the way that it does. This, I would argue, is what has led to them receiving awards for being the “Best Duo/Group of the Year” and offering the “Best American Roots Performance” and “Best Folk Album of the Year.” Their performances make their albums better than they should be — a performance that requires their silences and distances as well as their joined and merged vocals and guitars.
After seeing the show, I was no longer surprised that some hear them as being “bland” or “vanilla,” and also not surprised that their performance had so powerfully touched me while I was still mourning my grandfather. They’re masterful performers, and very intentional about their ironic presentation. It’s a kind of performance that appears as intricately fabricated and as fragile as a Fabergé egg, however. The audience last night consisted primarily of middle class and upper middle class white people: people who can afford to find the beauty over a nihilistic chasm of woe. The beauty provided in their charming interplay is a balm for certain kinds of existential sorrows, but it remains something light and easily crushed by other demands — racism, poverty, war, famine. To be able to hear these songs is a gift afforded by privilege. That it requires privilege to write such songs and to appreciate them is not wrong, of course, but it remains a limitation. Even this privilege, however, is balanced: The Milk Carton Kids still offer free digital downloads of their first two albums on their website, an attempt to provide worlds beyond NPR listeners access to their meticulous construction and attempt to breathe beauty into a world too frequently hidden behind the armor of irony to otherwise find it.