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Reviews: The Milk Carton Kids, Retrospect; Beggar’s Ride, Beggar’s Ride; Boy Without God, God Bless the Hunger

The Milk Carton Kids
[Milk Carton Records (2011)]

The acoustic rootsy duo The Milk Carton Kids (Kenneth Pattengale & Joey Ryan) have been recently touring as Joe Purdy’s backing “band,” and they’ve done the world a solid by making a full album’s worth of live performances of repurposed songs from their solo careers a completely free download on their site. (You don’t even have to give them an e-mail address.)

The comparisons they get to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are inevitable early on, but they make a lot of sense: the guitars are hard, brittle and filled with modern dissonance over slow southern/Appalachian rhythms and chords (in fact, they have a song that borrows most of Rawling’s guitar solo from “I Wanna Sing That Rock and Roll”—in a song called “Rock and Roll ‘Er”), the vocal harmonies are pristine, and there’s no shortage of hard living tales. Their lyrics are more personal than Welch’s, though they lack some of her poetic fire. The album really comes into its own on “Broken Headlights,” four songs in, which is the point where it becomes clear that they aren’t just another folk duo clone. The song is secretly a pop rock song, with delicate near-falsetto vocals against some very beautiful guitar work, which shows how well folk music can draw from the present and the past. The soulful “Maybe It’s Time” and “Queen Jane” are also great fusions of modern and rootsy sensibilities. Having two excellent singer-songwriters and players ensures consistently interesting interplay and a strong set of material throughout.

The slipups here mostly come when they get too mellow or too folksy, like “Trouble in These Parts,” which lacks a distinct melody and plods along, or “Girls, Gather Round,” which sounds like a songwriting exercise and is out of character—even to the point of including a fake country accent.

They’re on tour right now; since this recording will give you a good idea of what they sound like in person, it’s fair to say there’s very little chance you’ll be disappointed. Especially since you get to attend a Joe Purdy concert as part of the bargain.

Beggar’s Ride
Beggar’s Ride
[Self-released (2011)]

Beggar’s Ride formed in Baltimore not too long after guitarist and singer/songwriter Kate Maguire first moved here in 2009. After she had played with the folk-jazz singer Claudia SanSoucie for a bit, the duo settled on a name, wrote a handful of songs and adapted some of Maguire’s older originals, and hired Chris Smither’s producer for an album of gorgeous vocal harmony and Maguire’s flawless guitar work.

The vocal blend is more Jayhawks and Welch/Rawlings (who favor country-style unison) than Indigo Girls (whose harmonies have always been more pop- and counter melody-oriented). When they aren’t harmonizing, I prefer Maguire’s sure and steady lead to SanSoucie’s somewhat timid but more vulnerable qualities, but they sing as one voice throughout much of the disc.

Though the album has beauty in spades, it’s a quiet, moody affair, and a couple speedier tunes would have been a big help. “Hurry Home” is a standout both for its lyrical content and because it’s more upbeat—with a more developed guitar riff—than the rest of the songs, though it still clocks in at walking tempo:

“Five Days of Rain” and their cover of David Olney’s “Women Across the River” are also particularly noteworthy.

[Edit: You can visit the duo’s BandCamp page to hear the album in its entirety, though Driftwood Magazine would of course encourage you to support them via a download if you like their music.]

Boy Without God
God Bless the Hunger
[Self-released (2011)]

This is rough, handmade music, even though Boston’s Gabriel Birnbaum rented a studio this time instead of recording in his bedroom like in the past. The prominent use of horns and extended, visionary arrangements played in a close, intimate style with his plain-spoken baritone front and center most of the time gives you the sense that you’re privy to an arena rock concert taking place in Birnbaum’s head.

Birnbaum doesn’t hold back on anything. This is good on the lyrical side—check out “Love Letter”—but leads to unfortunate moments where entire minutes are rendered nearly unlistenable by off-key wordless vocals and banging (and not well mixed) cymbals that swallow up heaving, massive songs—like, well, “Love Letter,” which clocks in at over ten minutes of mixed results. His unfettered tendencies work much better when the passion comes out in fits and repetition like in the title track, a desperate song where the cymbal crashes and sax squeals make more sense.

The long songs make up the majority of runtime, but they aren’t the only thing here. There is straightforward rock like the excellent “City Kids.” Translating some of the care and attention given the short songs will make for better epics in the future.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

[Edit: Added the bandcamp player for BWG and the link for the full Beggar’s Ride album.]

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