After extensive touring since the band's formation led to on-the-road songwriting habits, as well as even more refined performance chops, neo-traditional folk duo the Milk Carton Kids decided to record songs for their third LP in live performance at empty venues (pre-show) while on tour in 2014. In the end, recordings from four venues in the U.S. and Canada made over six days are represented on Monterey, including six tracks at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Not only do the spaces' natural reverb and the live aspect add warmth to the duo's nearly flawless guitar work and harmonizing (that it's live may actually go unnoticed by many listeners, at least consciously), but it ties into the thematic role travel plays on an album about places, people, and country. The pair already have songs in their catalog titled "Michigan," "New York," and "Memphis" -- Monterey offers "The City of Our Lady," "Asheville Skies," and an unhurried title track with a Spanish guitar influence that has them "blinded by the notion of fog and air and ocean all around." The wider view of "Freedom" renders sociopolitical commentary in sadly appropriate melancholy fashion with a dissonant arpeggio lead-in: "Freedom's glowin' sadly now/Listen up, look around/Candles burn in memory/Freedom is a fading dream." Some songs are of a more personal nature: "Shooting Shadows" is a reflective tune about loss, time, and memory, and the melodic standout "Deadly Bells" is a poetic requiem also noteworthy for unexpected turns of chord and impressive lead guitar phrasing. Genre fans may want to note that the more uptempo but still minor chord-strewn "Secrets of the Stars" was co-written by fellow 2014 Best Folk Album Grammy nominee Sarah Jarosz. Kenneth Pattengale's beyond-agile flat-picking skills are highlighted on the brighter "High Hopes," though it still has those diminished chords that form a cloud over the song title. As for that cloud, even the band jokes about the "sad" tone and deliberate pace of the majority of their songs. This almost unrelenting wistfulness does, in part, as on prior albums, define their sound; but so do the vocal tones, harmonies, and guitar performances that are so accomplished and starkly beautiful from both performers throughout the record. Despite being a bit of a downer for some, these qualities and the improvisatory feel of the guitar work as their songs unfold (however well-rehearsed in reality) may well induce engaged and repeat listening, even for the sanguine.
AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson