NS2 & CMH present:
The Milk Carton Kids
Jessica Lea Mayfield
Tue · April 30, 2019
Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pmCharleston Music Hall
$29.50 Tier 3 | $39.50 Tier 2 | $49.50 Tier 1
Public on sale: Friday, January 18 at 10AM EST
Dinner Add On option available for an additional $32
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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.
“The whole record is about me taking my life back, without really realizing it,” she says. “I realized I’m the only person that is going to look out for me. I have to be my main person. No one else.”
Jessica Lea Mayfield might make some people uncomfortable with the level of honesty she projects on her forthcoming LP, Sorry Is Gone, but she’s not going to apologize – for that, or for anything else on her complex, confessional fourth album. Recorded with producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Kurt Vile, Phosphorescent and Dinosaur Jr.), Sorry Is Gone is a raw document of a woman in progress; one weathering cruel storms but finally able to blame the rain itself for the flood. Written as the truth of her own poisonous marriage unfolded before her eyes, Sorry Is Gone is a record of permission. Permission to create freely, to escape what is no longer safe and to stop bearing responsibility for things done to her, not by her. As Mayfield sings on the title track, “the sorry is gone.” Indeed, it is; kicked to the curb with every strum of her guitar.
Written in the years since her last solo LP, Make My Head Sing, in 2014, and her 2015 collaboration with Seth Avett, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, Sorry Is Gone became the soundtrack to a highly personal and traumatic story. The Ohio-born Mayfield was quietly enduring years of domestic abuse, smiling and touring while she hid a brewing tempest – and the bruises, too. But lyrics don’t lie even as bruises fade, and they started to tell the tale of her marriage before she was even able to; songs often dark and dangerous and ready to confront and claim her life. Written primarily on an acoustic baritone guitar – out of necessity at first, in her thin-walled apartment – Mayfield started to process the years of hurt and uncertainty through words and melodies that helped her see the light in the darkness.
Though much of Make My Head Sing was written music-first, Sorry Is Gone began with those lyrics, and, so often, a path forward unfolded itself as the songs formed. “The cold hard truth is you love me too much,” she sings on “Meadow,” a moody, echoey moment about finally realizing someone’s true colors. “The cold hard truth is you couldn’t love me enough.” It’s a brutal line from someone who refuses to be victimized. Evoking the pathos of nineties grunge, the folk confessions of her idol, Smith, and the cool blasé of bands like Luscious Jackson, the tracks that comprise Sorry Is Gone aren’t devised to make anyone comfortable but herself – but they are there to help share an emotional journal and a certain kind of healing that can only come through music.
“I have to sing about things and write about things that have happened to me as therapy,” says Mayfield, who shaped so many of these songs in the isolation of the small apartment she shared with her husband while their marriage fell apart in her hands – in many ways, those songs pointed to the way out before she could get there herself. “That’s what connects me to other music I listen to. I want music to make me feel things. This is my inner dialogue, and my chance to get the last word.”
Recorded with Agnello at Water Music and Electric Lady Studios, Mayfield recruited a stellar group of musicians for Sorry Is Gone, including Avett on backing vocals and keys, drummer Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth, Sun Kil Moon), bassist Emil Amos (Grails, Holy Sons), guitarist Cameron Deyell (Sia, Streets of Laredo) and Patrick Damphier (The Mynabirds, Field Days, who produced and played on “Offa My Hands”). Together, they worked to create an ominous take on love, where hope can exist among heartbreak and the end is only as finite as we make it to be. On songs like the title track and “Bum Me Out,” Mayfield bends the angelic notes of her voice over off-kilter orchestration, building an environment of warrior-style triumph; on “Safe 2 Connect 2,” she takes stock of the digital world to a haunting, acoustic backdrop that gives a subtle ode to her bluegrass roots.
“Been though hell, there’s no telling what might happen in my future,” she sings. “All I can do is be thankful for each moment that’s my own.”
Mayfield has paved an unconventional lifestyle – playing in her family’s bluegrass band since the age of eight, she didn’t have any traditional schooling and released her first album at the age of fifteen, when she was discovered by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Influenced by everything from that mountain sound to the modern garage, Mayfield has been able to come at songwriting from a pure perspective, lead more by her heart than any textbook. It’s what makes the tracks of Sorry Is Gone so striking and visceral – there is no filter on the emotions, no rulebook and certainly no excuses for anything she’s been through or the candor she fires.
“I’m not going to bite my lip on anything,” she says. “If there is one thing I am going to do, it’s talk and sing about what I want to. No one is going to manipulate me.”
The sorry is gone, once and for all – and Sorry Is Gone is a permission slip for anyone who wants to stop apologizing for others, and start living for themselves.
Charleston Music Hall
37 John Street
Charleston, South Carolina, 29403