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KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM
The Foreword to Prologue by Joe Henry
Many years ago, in a moment of professional crisis, I took up for a spell with The Jayhawks, an earnest band from Minnesota with whom I shared a tour, a dog-eared sensibility, and the lack of sufficient patronage that might’ve kept us from sleeping triple in the double beds of hard-lit motel rooms scattered throughout the land of the Great Lakes. Before meeting them, I had been given their most recent album by way of introduction; and I will confess here that upon first listen I became so seduced by the singular character that emerged from the songs, that I failed to register that there were actually two very different singers giving rise to him. Honest: I heard it all as if coming from one central figure who had a voice all his own, and that neither lead singer in the band could wholly claim or account for.
I was embarrassed when this mishearing was initially pointed out to me; but had I been on the other end of that inadvertent deception I would have thrilled to it: the notion that a nameless Other might have been rendered so persuasively in song that the artists themselves disappeared fully into its arc and service.
So now has proved the case with Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, The Milk Carton Kids: I listen and, try as I might, forget to hear them as distinct collaborators in song and story. Instead, they move to become a single, shadowy persona within the frame of Prologue –like young twins cast to tag-team one demanding role in a terse-but-tender film by Elia Kazan, haunted and hounded across a lonely landscape in search of the love that might provide their collective character a fleeting taste of both redemption and self-recognition.
And it isn’t only their singing voices that build this hall of mirrors for me: their songwriting and string work wind around each other like coarse briar at the base of a flag pole, confusing the mind as to how exactly it is fixed to the ground, while clearly keeping its banner raised high above the thorns, streaming if frayed. It is a flag that flies on behalf of no clear territory, though, as much as it waves to commemorate some missed opportunity; as if a particular time itself had been the fool’s destination, fading immediately upon arrival…leaving sand in the shoe, love in the rearview, and a hand bereft of the hammer that had almost forged something (God save us) permanent.
Their individual aspirations aside –Joey’s or Kenneth’s— I should say I don’t wish for it to be different, don’t wish for my confusions between them to be abated. I prefer disorientation when it comes to music. I live to be deceived, and would far rather be seduced than have anything explained.
As for this unnamed fella, then, who weaves hurt-but-hopeful through these songs…he’s got something he needs to tell me, I think. And only because he speaks to me from the moving shadows, his face half hidden, will I truly be able to recognize his story as my own.
24 June, 2011