One could spend hours arguing over what constitutes the definitive Los Angeles sound. Is the City of Angels most famous for sun-soaked ’70s rock, perfected in Laurel Canyon by the likes of the Eagles and Crosby Stills and Nash? How about amphetamine-jacked SoCal punk as practised by ’80s miscreants Bad Religion and the Adolescents? And let’s not forget the welcome-to-the-jungle late-’80s metal of Guns ’N Roses and Mötley Crüe. All of the above continue to reverberate today, whether in the form of Fleet Foxes, Green Day, or the Darkness.
Whatever the Los Angeles sound is, one thing is for certain: the guitar-folk duo of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale—known as the Milk Carton Kids—don’t seem to have it. The key word there is seem. As far as Ryan is concerned, he and his bandmate sound every bit as L.A. as the next band, even though most will argue that the singers bring to mind a campfire in rural Nebraska.
“Los Angeles is a unique place that’s caught between the perceptions of people who aren’t from there and the people who are from there,” suggests Ryan. “Kenneth and I both grew up there, so to us it’s home. Most of the things that Los Angeles shows to the outward world fade into the background when you grow up there. It’s actually quite a normal place. It can take a long time to get past the façade, which is a very real thing.”
Translated, what he’s getting at is that he’s more into hanging in the backyard under the stars with an acoustic guitar than partying with LiLo at the Chateau Marmont. That’s reflected by the Milk Carton Kids’ second release, Prologue, a record that sets the voices of Ryan and Pattengale to stripped-to-the-bone acoustic guitars. Minimalism is the key word, something that Ryan is proud to acknowledge.
“It was a decision that was made strongly in principle, but it was still sort of ad hoc,” he says. “When Kenneth and I sat together with our two guitars and sang for the first time and then listened back to a recording of us on the first day, it sounded complete. It didn’t sound like we needed anything else.”
That’s been borne out by the fact that the group has been championed relentlessly by the likes of America’s tastemaking NPR. Having released solo records in the past to little fanfare, Pattengale and Ryan have also smartly kick-started their career together by releasing Prologue for free online, thus packing shows with fans who actually know their music.
What’s interesting on the record is that the Milk Carton Kids haven’t cast themselves as guys who listen to Simon and Garfunkel and not much else. Add some trumpet, clarinet, and horns to “Stealing Romance” and you’d have the kind of hot-jazz number that made the Squirrel Nut Zippers the retro toast of the town in the late ’90s, while the only thing keeping “I Still Want a Little More” out of shitkicker heaven is the lack of down-home pedal steel and fiddle.
“I think that we’re trying to push the emotional perimeters of what you can do with two voices and two guitars,” Ryan says. “The musical exploring on Prologue is within that limited scope of the tools that we have in our hands. The same thing will happen on our next record, where we felt like there was a lot more that we can do and say, still using two voices and two guitars.”
And what’s that next record, which has already been recorded, going to sound like? Well, the answer is probably “Los Angeles”.
The Milk Carton Kids play the Media Club next Thursday (October 11).