The Milk Carton Kids’ 2018 All The Things That I Did And All The Things That I Didn’t Do had a whole world of sound, with acoustic guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan making room for cello, clarinet, double bass, drums, electric guitar, mandolin, mellotron, organ, pedal steel, piano, tenor sax, and violin. It was a sharp-minded, careful combination that balanced intimacy and gravity, and it makes their 2019 follow-up an especially powerful statement.
By contrast, the Milk Carton Kids are the only ones on The Only Ones, with Ryan playing straight man on a 1951 Gibson J-45 and Pattengale weaving in, out, up, down, and around on an all-mahogany 1954 Martin 0-15 that’s never sounded better. The album is so quiet you can hear beauty in the smallest movements, like the way the vocals lag behind the rhythm in “About the Size of a Pixel,” and how the harmonies intertwine on the breakup tune “I Meant Every Word I Said.”
The quietness of the production makes these songs feel especially brittle and heart-worn, as if there’s nothing left for Pattengale and Ryan to hide. On “The Only Ones,” they’re singing to a lover who’s too “tired, tired, so tired” to even think about leaving, and in “My Name is Ana,” they sing about a little girl living in an attic, kept awake by a vision of the men who are going to come and take her away. It’s the kind of loneliness that can only come from two voices and two guitars, twinned but solitary, singing and writing with a haunting beauty.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.