It’s finally here. We waited patiently for the sophomore studio album from Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattingale, The Milk Carton Kids, after Prologue. They exploded in the last year and a half after joining forces and releasing a live album and Prologue within 4 months of each other. They’ve toured with The Punch Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Lumineers in that time and been repeatedly featured on NPR. All of that does a little to introduce The Ash & Clay.
Much like a lot of sophomore albums we’ve seen recently, The Ash & Clay is not a departure from previous material. This is a very good thing. This album continues the airtight harmonies and dual guitar sound that The Milk Carton Kids have perfected. It’s 12 songs of near flawless Americana music. It’s perhaps a little slower and more thought provoking than Prologue, but this seems to be more of a distillation of their touring personas and folk stylings. For example, the most upbeat song, “Honey, Honey” is a mere 2:20, marking the high point for tempo and low point for duration on the album.
It’s hard to capture in words the magic of the sound that these two guys can produce with 2 voices and 2 guitars. Instead of doing a song by song break down, I’m going to highlight a few that I think show best how the style and sound of the band has evolved. “Years Gone By” is a slow, nostalgic song; one that laments the loss of love with lines like “When you go, when you go, I don’t know myself any more” and “time’s a thief and stole the show”. The duo has found a way to crystallize their sound and atmosphere into words in a way that the last album couldn’t quite do. The title track aims a little higher at themes that are more than personal. One of the first lines in “The Ash & Clay” is “It may look like God’s away with all the trouble these days”. The theme is one of family and taking care of the people you love in spite of those kinds of thoughts. “We’ll come home before the girls are grown, we’re coming home tonight.”
Kenneth’s writing on “Promised Land” is gut wrenching. The song’s understated guitar work underscores the depth of the lyrics and the meaning behind them. It begins with “Every now and then, I’m gonna make you cry./ You won’t remember when, I won’t remember why.” But there’s hope in the repeated “I raise my hand to the promised land.” On the flip side, the other notable uptempo song is “Heaven”, a song that takes aim at religion in a very critical way. The second verse is all you need to understand the message of the song. “Stomp the drum, good and loud, shake the walls down./ Scream and holler, good and loud, all together now./ Ain’t nothing like a lie to gather round./ They promised me heaven, I was hoping for so much more.”
Finally, there’s “On The Mend”, maybe the most traditional song on the album. It’s a song that Ryan sings with an emotion that’s almost palpable. With the repeated line “Forsaken, on the mend”, this song seems to capture what the guys experienced travelling across the country for the last couple years, meeting people from all walks of life. “Hold the hand that leads you./ There’s no god here to believe./ What matters moves around us, in the air we breathe.” Those lines, that sound, the meaning in those words are what make The Milk Carton Kids and The Ash & Clay so special.