American folk rock is reaching another apex thanks to bands like The Lumineers and Seattle’s The Head and the Heart scoring big hits with anthemic songs with radio-friendly, pop-driven hooks.
While they may not peddle music as readily accessible as some of their peers, The Milk Carton Kids — who swing through the Neptune Theatre on Wednesday, June 11 — have benefited from the genre’s recent commercial success.
Appearances on “Austin City Limits,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and NPR’s “Tiny Desk” concert series, plus a Grammy nomination for their 2013 album “The Ash & Clay,” have helped establish the Milk Carton Kids as the most exciting new duo in the genre.
“We definitely benefit from the fact that bands reaching that level have instrumentation that is acoustic,” said Joey Ryan, as he waited to go on stage in Boulder, Colo., last week. “Once you’ve reached that level, you have to write music which is intended for the radio. Once you’re playing to 10,000 people, you have to write music and arrange it so you can play it in a stadium or an arena. We just don’t do that.”
Instead, The Milk Carton Kids play challenging folk music, like what was on “The Ash & Clay,” a thoughtful, sprawling collection of songs that touches on religion, identity and American dreams deferred. Ryan pairs with Kenneth Pattengale to create classic harmonies that easily call to mind Simon and Garfunkel or the Everly Brothers.
The album also represents a growth in the partnership between Pattengale and Ryan, who met in Southern California a few years ago when both their careers were struggling and at a crossroads. Ryan said the new songs have been built to take advantage of the pair’s vocal interplay, and the precise production highlights that working relationship.
“I think our collaborations are becoming more tightly knit,” Ryan said, noting that every song on the new album has a harmony part. “It wasn’t a decision to start behaving that way. It just started happening naturally so we embraced it.”
Things are getting easier on the road, too, especially after a tour opening for the Punch Brothers. Ryan said the band is getting more work done and has time to write music and even record, now that it isn’t worried about making sure venues fill up.
“Only very recently have we graduated from bringing folding chairs into dive bars and pretending it was a theater to actually playing in real theaters,” Ryan said. “Now for the first time we’re starting to get to (headline) some of the rooms we played before when it wasn’t our tour.”
Milk Carton Kids, Tom Brosseau
8 p.m. Wednesday, June 11, at the Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $20 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).