The Milk Carton Kids

The Milk Carton Kids

with special guest Sierra Hull

Mon, June 25, 2018

Doors: 5:45 pm / Show: 6:30 pm

Denver Botanic Gardens - York Street

$53.00 - $58.00

*$5/ticket fee will be applied at check out.

The Milk Carton Kids
The Milk Carton Kids
Waltzing into disaster and its aftermath, The Milk Carton Kids' "All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn't Do" arrives from ANTI- Records on June 29.

The new project marks the first time that acoustic duo Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale have brought a band into the studio with them. "We wanted to do something new," Pattengale says. "We had been going around the country yet another time to do the duo show, going to the places we'd been before. There arose some sort of need for change."

"Musically we knew we were going to make the record with a bigger sonic palette," says Ryan. "It was liberating to know we wouldn’t have to be able to carry every song with just our two guitars."

Since their last studio album, "Monterey" (ANTI- 2015), life has changed dramatically for The Milk Carton Kids. Pattengale has moved to, and is now producing records in Nashville. Ryan is now the father of two children and works as a producer on "Live from Here with Chris Thile," the reboot of "A Prairie Home Companion." A break from years of non-stop touring, Ryan says, has yielded "space outside of the band that gives us perspective on what the band is."

But it's not just the addition of the band here that creates something new. National politics left Ryan feeling disoriented and mournful. Pattengale’s relationship of seven years ended, and he found himself unexpectedly needing surgery for cancer. (He is cancer-free now, and accidentally broke his cigarette habit in the process.)

Though they didn't approach the new album conceptually, a theme of shattered realities began to emerge out of the songs that sparked to life. Recent events provided a bruising background for the record, yet the project is somehow bigger than any personal grief. Two-part harmonies ride acoustic guitars high above the haunting landscape created by the presence of the band, as if Americana went searching for a lost America.

***

Produced by Joe Henry and engineered by Ryan Freeland, "All the Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn't Do" was recorded in October 2017 in the Sun Room at House of Blues Studio in Nashville. Musicians who joined them there included Brittany Haas on violin and mandolin, Paul Kowert and Dennis Crouch on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums, Levon Henry on clarinet and saxophone, Nat Smith on cello, Pat Sansone on piano, mellotron, and Hammond organ, Russ Pahl on pedal steel and other guitars and Lindsay Lou and Logan Ledger as additional singers. Mixed by Pattengale, the album was mastered by Kim Rosen.

If previous Milk Carton Kids productions recall plaintive missives from a faraway hometown, these songs sound more intimate, like a tragic midnight knock at your front door.

The album ricochets between familiar styles and experimental songs. "Just Look at Us Now" rejects easy sentiment, suggesting that hindsight only reveals how badly things have turned out. "It's a terrifying place to be," says Ryan, "when everything seemed to be going fine." The stunned "Mourning in America" holds up an atmospheric Polaroid from the Midwest—as Ryan explains it, "what it feels like to live in a country you thought you knew."

In one of their biggest departures, "Nothing Is Real," neither of The Milk Carton Kids plays guitar. Describing the recording session for it, Pattengale says, "That was one of the days we had maybe ten people in studio. The way that I connected to the song was by playing it on the piano. When we were in studio and having trouble figuring out the angle, I thought, 'Why don't we use the piano, and assign each person a part of what I'm playing?' That song used my piano part almost as if we were writing an arrangement."

Inside the theme of shattered realities that wires the album together, even elliptical songs somehow become direct. The lyrics for "Blindness," when set to music, acquired an unnerving undertone. A subdued rhythm section and extended guitar solo turns "One More for the Road" from a wistful late-night last call into an astounding ten-and-a half-minute elegy.

Western influences on "Younger Years" gallop over a snaking clarinet and under vocals looking for something to salvage from sorrow ("Love inside our hearts / is the only kind of savior we've been sent"). "You Break My Heart" features Pattengale's solo vocals. Harmony turns "I've Been Loving You" into visceral grief. "For much of my life I've avoided that kind of intimacy and immediacy in my own writing," says Pattengale, "but you have to leave your blood on the page. It's wonderful, but it can also be a terrifying thing."

"Big Time" brings the energy of their live performances into the studio. "The goal was actually to record this one with a string band," Ryan says. "So everybody was in the room together. Lyrically, this one deals in the most hopeful way with some of the themes of the record."

The atmosphere on much of the album is both lush and spare, like waking up at night to find yourself on an ice floe that has drifted far from shore. "A Sea of Roses" traces its narrator's burial wishes, while "Unwinnable War" went through a metamorphosis as it developed. "If these are the sides we're staking out, no one side or the other can win," says Ryan. "We lose sight of the damage the battle does."

The title track, "All the Things…" presents a ledger of the countless tiny moments in a relationship from the vantage point of its passage into memory. ("The story of how the end came to be. How you became you. How I became me.")

***

Listening to the Milk Carton Kids talk about their creative process, it's easy to imagine them running in opposite directions even while yoked together. "Joey and I famously have an adversarial relationship, and that did not abate when it came to choosing songs," Pattengale says.

They dig at each other in interviews and on stage, where Ryan plays his own straight man, while Pattengale tunes his guitar. The songs emerge somewhere in the silences and the struggle between their sensibilities.

They have been known to argue over song choices. They have been known to argue about everything from wardrobe to geography to grammar. But their singing is the place where they make room for each other and the shared identity that rises out of their combined voices.

Pattengale recalls hearing a story from Del Byrant, the son of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote so many of the Everly Brothers' biggest hits. The tale goes that when it came time to teach them a new song, the couple would separate the brothers, with each one going into a different room to learn his part. In the process, they would tell each brother that he was singing the melody, while his brother was singing harmony.

Defying the conventions of melody and harmony is a strategy the Milk Carton Kids have consciously embraced. "Sometimes, we'll switch parts for a beat or a bar or a note," Ryan says. "And that starts to obfuscate what is the melody and what is the supporting part. Because we think of both of them being strong enough to stand alone."

"There are only so many things you can do alone in life that allow you to transcend your sense of self for even a short period," Pattengale says. "I'm the lucky recipient of a life in which for hundreds of times, day after day, I get to spend an hour that is like speaking a language only two people know and doing it in a space with others who want to hear it.

By extending that language to a band and reimagining the boundaries around what acoustic-centered two-part harmony can sound like, "All The Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn't Do" carries listeners down a river and out into the open sea.
with special guest Sierra Hull
with special guest Sierra Hull
This is where a preternatural talent becomes a natural woman.

This is Sierra Hull’s Weighted Mind. It is nothing like what we thought it would be. It is nothing like what we’ve heard before, from anyone. It is singular and emphatic, harmonious and dissonant. It is the realization of promise, and the affirmation of individuality. It is born of difficulty and indecision, yet it rings with ease, decisiveness, and beauty.

“She plays the mandolin with a degree of refined elegance and freedom that few have achieved,” says Bela Fleck, the genre-leaping banjo master who produced Weighted Mind. “And now her vocals and songwriting have matured to the level of her virtuosity.”

Alison Krauss, who has won more Grammy awards than any female artist in history, says of Hull, “I think she’s endless. I don’t see any boundaries. Talent like hers is so rare, and I don’t think it stops. It’s round.”

Hull came to us as a bluegrass thrush, a teen prodigy. Krauss called her to the Grand Ole Opry stage when Hull was 11-years-old. Two years later, she signed with Rounder Records, and soon became known as a remarkable mandolin player, a tone-true vocalist, and a recording artist of high order. She made two acclaimed albums. She played the White House, and Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and she became the first bluegrass musician to receive a Presidential Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music.

She was celebrated, yet adrift. Stranded, even.

What she felt at 22 was not what she felt at 12, and the music Sierra Hull was writing and playing at home was different from the music she was making on stages.

“In some way, I was needing to run from the thing that everybody thought I was being,” she says now, at 24.

But she wasn’t running so much as plodding.

She fielded myriad opinions about hypothetical courses. She grew vulnerable, and weighted, and she wrote songs about all of that. She found solace in an antique Brenda Ueland book that advised, “Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself.”

And she talked with Krauss, the childhood hero who had become an adult confidante.

“Sierra did well in music very fast and very young,” says Krauss. “Sometimes when that happens, people don’t want you to change. It’s, ‘We know you as this, and now you’re scaring us.’ But there wasn’t a question about what she wanted. She just needed somebody to listen to her and say, ‘What you have to say is valuable. If this is what you feel and what you want to say, you wait until you get to say it.’” Krauss also suggested she talk with Fleck.

“Sierra lives in the border area where new ideas mix to create hybrids, and sometimes brand new directions,” he says. “Her own voice was quietly telling her something that was hard to hear over all the advice she was getting.” Fleck asked her to play him her new songs, without accompaniment: Just voice and mandolin.

“Even when I was fronting a band, I’d always been an ensemble player,” Hull says. “To do something by myself made me rethink everything.”

And so she rethought, and she found new ways to play the new songs she’d written. In short time, what had been arduous now seemed genuine and innate. C.S. Lewis’ quote about how “the longest way round is the shortest way home” made sense. And a dazzling and atypical album was made possible.

Hull’s songs did not remain bare of all but mandolin and voice, though those are the essential elements here. Bass marvel Ethan Jodziewicz came on, providing resonance and rhythmic complexity. Fleck’s banjo adorns the courtly “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea.” And Krauss, Abigail Washburn and Rhiannon Giddens add enchanting harmonies.

Bluegrass roots inform and inspire this soundscape, but bluegrass does not define or limit Weighted Mind. This is not bluegrass music, or chamber music, or pop music. This is original music, from a virtuoso who tells the truth and speaks from herself.

“If you won’t go where I’m going, then I’ll have to go alone,” she sings. “Choices and changes/ I’m tired of trying to be someone else.” Then she unleashes an octave mandolin solo—first fluttering, then tense and troubled—that could come from no one else.

Hull wrote eleven of Weighted Mind’s twelve songs (and she arranged the twelfth tune), penning some with co-writers Jon Weisberger, Zac Bevill, and Josh Shilling, and writing “Stranded,” “Wings of the Dawn,” “Birthday,” “Lullaby,” “I’ll Be Fine,” and “Black River” on her own.

“The moment you start to be yourself, there’s an honesty about that, that people connect with,” she says. “This album feels like the story of my early twenties, of that searching. Now, it feels like everything worked out the way it was supposed to.”

“I’d like to say to you, ‘Come follow,’” Hull sings on “Compass.” “But you may find my heart’s been hollowed out.”

Now, she knows. If her heart was hollowed, it was only so it might be filled anew, and then revealed. Welcome to a Weighted Mind, at ease.

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