REVIEW: The Milk Carton Kids “All the Things I Did” Is Accessible and Subtle


The Milk Carton Kids seemingly wanted to change up their sound on All The Things I Did and All The Things I Didn’t Do. They enlisted Joe Henry, who has produced three Grammy Award-winning albums and worked with any number of number of prominent of prominent folk artists, including Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Henry brought in outside instruments to accompany the Milk Carton Kids, and the resulting sound is striking. The album has a more accessible sound than their previous work, while still recognizable as belonging to the folk genre. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale’s vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars still dominate, but they are arranged and complemented in new, different, and pleasing ways.

The lyrics to All The Things eschew direct reference to current events, but the somber tone of disillusionment suggest that these artists, like everyone else in America, are coming to grips with the events of the last few years. The lead track, “Look at Us Now,” at first appears it might be about a relationship:

when i was a kid you could look in my eyes and see the whole world spinning there
i used to walk out in the rain at night just to feel it soak into my hair
i could’ve sworn we [emphasis added] were headed somewhere
it was a fantasy that only drew empty stares angry “i don’t knows” and “i don’t cares”

The second verse takes the listeners somewhere unexpected:

when i was a kid you could look to a time when all the wars had come and gone
it was the end of all history, the dust settled down it was a new dawn
we wanted to prove we were something, we were special
we knew in our hearts we weren’t the only ones
somehow we turned around and we were wrong

“We,” it turns out, wasn’t a couple. Not only does the second verse illuminate the meaning of “we” in the first, it also makes us understand “world” in a more literal sense, i.e., globe. It may just be a coincidence, but in 1992, the scholar Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and The Last Man, arguing that the spreading liberal democracy and global capitalism represented an endpoint of history.

This kind of lyrical complexity occurs throughout TMCK’s outstanding album. It is subtle, and it will reward the listener for close attention and repeated listening. The enhanced production on this album will make repeated listening a joy, thanks to contributions by Jay Bellerose (drums), Dennis Crouch (double and electric bass), Brittany Haas (violin), Levon Henry (alto and Bb clarinet, tenor sax), Paul Kowert (double bass), Russ Pahl (pedal steel,baritone, and hi-strung guitar; mandolin), Pat Sansone (mellotron, Hammond organ, piano), Nat Smith (cello), and additional vocals from Lindsay Lou.  Your copy is available here.

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