Is it just me, or has the indie folk scene gotten a bit crowded? It seems like the raw, stompy, banjo-ey sounds of Mumford & Sons and their ilk have sparked a flurry of new acts playing the heck out of their acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos, attempting to turn folk into the new rock. If (like me) you were folk before folk was cool, you are probably looking for a breather right about now—yearning for the more relaxed, “folky” version of folk we were accustomed to before all this noise. Cue the Milk Carton Kids. That’s just what they’re about.
Their second studio release The Ash & Clay just drips with calm. Simple acoustic guitars and two-part harmonies, songs sung with equal parts humor and melancholy. The easy spirit of Simon & Garfunkel with the harmonic quality of The Everly Brothers. Flirtatious love songs like “Honey, Honey” set next to the mournful reflections of “Promised Land” and “Memphis.” The socio-political ruminations of “The Ash & Clay” along with the gospel-ly waltz of “Snake Eyes.” Ahhhh. This is the way folk music used to be before the guitarist used to stomp a bass drum, before the cellist used a distortion pedal—before folk was rock-and-roll-ified.
Don’t misunderstand—I find the new folk exciting. I love Mumford & Sons, and I love The Lumineers. And I have to say honestly that if the Milk Carton Kids were doing their thing in a more sparse folk climate, they would probably come off as bland, because they don’t really offer anything new. But context is everything. In a folk culture that could use a dose of Ritalin right now, this duo’s greatest strength is the fact that they aren’t trying to push the envelope. They’re just out there keeping it simple, making great, calm, folk music. The kind of music that makes you want to rest by the fire on a snowy day, or draw a bath.
So while the other guys are working up a sweat pounding away on their instruments, the Milk Carton Kids are sitting on their stools, singing songs of love and reflection, serving as a reminder of where this music actually came from and what it really means. Other folk bands might be more exciting right now, but it’s guys like the Milk Carton Kids, and records like The Ash & Clay, that are making sure folk music doesn’t lose its compass along the way.