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Review: The Milk Carton Kids, 'Monterey'

Courtesy of the artist

The Milk Carton Kids' Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan craft soft, timeless ballads in close harmony — and, as such, recall the reverently beautiful likes of Simon & Garfunkel. But, while the duo's first three albums are gorgeous throughout, the studio can have a way of making music just a little too impeccable. Put The Milk Carton Kids on stage instead, and the music picks up an extra layer of warmth, aided in no small part by the pair's hilariously deadpan banter.

The new Monterey contains none of that Smothers Brothers-esque between-song conversation — there's a live DVD for that, as well as a charming Tiny Desk Concert — but The Milk Carton Kids did make the wise decision to record it in real time, without an audience, on some of Ryan and Pattengale's favorite theater stages. As a result, the album feels lived-in, airy, comfortable, human.

Monterey also does a nice job mixing up The Milk Carton Kids' sound a little bit, as tender ballads ("Asheville Skies," "Getaway," the title track) and mournful political ruminations ("Freedom") give way to the occasional infusion of sprightlier material as the album progresses. "High Hopes" has the wry friskiness of a set-closer, for example, while the brightly sparkling two-minute romp "The City Of Our Lady" injects a frenetic little jolt into the proceedings later on. It all adds up to a sound that feels lighter and looser than ever, sacrificing the tiniest bit of pristineness for a much-needed note of softly scuffed-up grace.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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