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First Play: The Milk Carton Kids, All the Things I did and all the Things I Didn't Do

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By
Holly Gordon

The Milk Carton Kids have released four albums as a duo, building their Americana reputation on two-part harmonies and heartrending ballads. But with All the Things That I Did and all the Things That I Didn’t Do, the Grammy-nominated band’s fifth album, bandmates Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan have brought a band with them into the studio for the first time.

The result is a grand gesture of a recording, one that organically expands on what Pattengale and Ryan have been building for seven years — adding depth and flourishes while still making space for their central voices.

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

Recorded in the Sun Room at House of Blues Studio in Nashville in October 2017, Pattengale and Ryan were joined by Brittany Haas (violin and mandolin), Paul Kowert and Dennis Crouch (bass), Jay Bellerose (drums), Levon Henry (clarinet and saxophone), Nat Smith (cello), Pat Sansone (piano, mellotron and Hammond organ), Russ Pahl (pedal steel and other guitars) and Lindsay Lou and Logan Ledger (additional singers).

In addition to this full-band status, Pattengale and Ryan have seen what reads as a combined lifetime of changes in the three years since their last album, Monterey: Ryan had a second child and started producing the shows Live From Here with Chris Thile and the reboot of A Prairie Home Companion, while Pattengale was faced with the end of a seven-year relationship and a cancer diagnosis (he is currently cancer-free).

The strife — and subtle celebration of life — is, of course, in the songs. Album opener “Just Look at us Now” has a bragging title, but that’s not how the Milk Carton Kids play; instead, it’s a rumination on growing up and growing out, with these devastating closing lines: “You could’ve told me it would never end/ nothing could ever come between such two good friends/ make me another promise if you dare/ just look at us now.”

The following track, “Nothing is Real,” is introed with an almost jaunty piano, but the harmonies of Pattengale and Ryan singing, “Nothing is real/ the wind isn’t blowing/ the sun doesn’t shine/ songs are just subroutines/ value’s assigned” juxtaposes that bit of sunlight. It’s on a track like this that the full band is perfectly supportive, and not at all showy. A little more than halfway through this album, the Milk Carton Kids have a 10-minute epic — their first single, no less — but not even it feels like too much.

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