Kids might be dead, but their folk's very much alive
The Milk Carton Kids
Lille Vega, Enghavevej 40,
On 25 May 1979, a six-year-old child by the name of Etan Patz disappeared on his way to the school bus in Lower Manhattan. And not long afterwards, for the first ever time, the desperate (and ultimately fruitless) search for a missing child extended past flyers and billboards straight onto unsuspecting citizens’ breakfast tables as Etan’s face became the first to grace the side of a milk carton.
Throughout the 1980s, Americans poured their milk under the haunting gaze of kidnapped, violated, dying or already dead children asking to be found. Besides raising awareness though, the milk carton campaign also raised too many worried mothers’ eyebrows, so it was eventually discontinued, reinstating the most important meal of the day with its unperturbed sense of being.
But before the milk carton kids could slip into total pop-culture oblivion, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, two Californian musicians, memorialised them in their band name, which is, yes you guessed it: The Milk Carton Kids. Whether you think the purpose was to honour their memory, or rather to eradicate it (the musical duo have complete Google-search dominance over the missing-kids), you are apparently wrong in both cases.
“The name comes from one of our own songs, the song’s called ‘Milk Carton Kid’, which is the singular version of it, and we just added the ‘s’ to account for the fact that there are two band members,” Ryan explained onstage at the NPR Tiny Desk Concert.
“The song itself is named after a lyric within that song, which also refers to a milk carton kid, in the singular, and we’re not going to play that song, but I just figured we’d address the question that’s on everybody’s mind with a completely unsatisfactory answer.”
So there you have it. If you want to be cynical about it, this display of deadpan humour is just a way of avoiding the label of pretentiousness in the age of hipster while still appearing reasonably enigmatic. But if you are slightly more forgiving, chances are you will find Pattengale and Ryan’s thin-voiced, suit-clad onstage presence excruciatingly charming.
The music of the West Coast boys has a distinctly ‘60s East Coast flavour, with artists such as Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel and Bobby Dylan resonating as loud as can be in their mellow, simple yet mindful music. In Europe they have been compared, rightfully I think, to the Norwegian indie folk-pop duo Kings of Convenience, who are known for their calming voices and subtle guitar melodies.
It may sound paradoxical but the most distinctive thing about The Milk Carton Kids’ music is its simple purity, but if you think about it, there haven’t been that many successful contemporary attempts at reviving folk, so the Grammy-nominated duo really do stick out with their high quality, low-fi music.
You don’t really have to be a folk-fiend to enjoy them either – their acoustic, soothing ballads surprise with deftly interwoven vocals. And while their minimalist approach gives them a pristine sound that makes listening so undemanding, it does so alongside a hefty portion of musical intricacy. The sound of The Milk Carton Kids is not easily forgotten, but good luck getting that image of crying kidnapped kids out of your mind.
If you need more convincing, check out their website, www.themilkcartonkids.com, where their first two albums Prologue and Retrospect are available for free download.