February 29, 2012

Test Spin: Punch Brothers

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What do you get when you add together one of the best young banjoists in the world, two conservatory trained musicians on mandolin and bass, and an equally renowned fiddle player and guitarist? That would be the extremely unconventional sound that has been meticulously cultivated by the Punch Brothers. It is fair to say that these guys are a mixture of the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, but simply better trained and cleverer songwriters. Each musician in this band has had substantial success as a soloist in one way or another (frontman Chris Thile recently collaborated with artists as varied as Yo-Yo Ma and Josh Ritter in his solo albums); when they come together, the result is inevitably prolific. Originally attributing themselves with progressive bluegrass, over the years the band has veered from Americana to the classical music world. Most impressively, in its debut album Punch, the band included a four-movement suite entitled “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” which took on the somber composition of a chamber work, while preserving bluegrass features. On its third album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, this hybrid genre is more fluidly blended, but with expected innovations.

“Movement and Location,” a tour-de-force album opener, boasts a hard rock pulse despite the band’s complete lack of electric instruments. Fast, brushstroked violin with dark mandolin and guitar progressions open the piece. Thile’s butter-smooth voice melts in with bone-chilling interval jumps. Violin echoes into a soft, high-pitched whimper at the end of each verse. The listener gets more and more out of this song played on repeat. You’ll wonder if it has started to sound like some obscure Arcade Fire song, then maybe the Flecktones, before realizing that the quintet has actually unearthed a style completely its own. “No Concern of Yours” takes a similar droning tone, but increased use of banjo and bluegrass vocal harmonization reminds us of their default genre.

“This Girl” will make you immediately fall in love with Thile, if you don’t already have an enormous talent crush on him. What seems like a charming pop tune about unrequited love becomes more driven in the chorus. Thile shouts tunefully and pleadingly to the Gods above Pikelny’s rippling banjo pickings. Another of the lighter tracks, “Clara,” is stunning with its delicate verses. “Don’t Get Married Without Me” is a humorous song that is deceivingly simple, complete with banjo comparable to chiming bells, fluttering violin embellishments and falsetto vocals.

In the middle of the album, the band takes on an instrumental cover of Swedish folk band Väsen’s “Flippen.” Perhaps the band just wanted to remind us of its immense instrumental proficiencies in this Celtic-infused reel. The track forces us to focus on the artistry of the players, almost soliciting guilt for paying too much attention to the vocals and lyrics of the earlier tracks. Following this foot-tapping tune is “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a cute, lethally catchy klezmer-spun tune with boozy, lulling bass accompaniment.

The titular track, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” returns to the rock quality introduced earlier in the album. The lyrics are biting and sung with attitude.  In the middle of the song, Thile breaks into wailing and shreds a very assertive mandolin solo. That’s right, mandolin, and it’s followed by an equally harried and caustic violin improvisation. It’s hard not to notice a vague Radiohead influence in the songs more geared towards rock, so it is no surprise that the Brothers included another Radiohead cover on this album. This time, they took on the more eerie “Kid A,” altogether replacing vocals with brooding bass. The guys substitute the electronic tinkerings with ghostly violin devices and high pitched cascading runs in the mandolin and guitar parts. It is, dare I say, more haunting than the original.

“Soon or Never” is one of the few soft, slow tempo songs on the album. The warm harmonies and meandering violin lines give an Appalachian feel to the track. “Hundred Dollars” and “New York City” are two of the more intense, angst-filled songs on the album. “Hundred Dollars” continues the band’s penchant for mixed time signatures and heavily syncopated solos. “New York City” reflects on the loneliness of the city, capturing chilliness in its starkly brisk alternations from heavily accompanied to sparsely supported singing, from major to minor chords.

The album, as a whole, has more of a studio feel than the band’s previous works. The tunes are simply fresher; but simultaneously, their sound has undoubtedly matured. Instead of showcasing their individual talents in traditional bluegrass soloing, the players are now exploring more profound dimensions of their abilities. They interlock and intersect progressions, challenge their own sense of rhythm, and find ways to play off of one another that adds to an amazing depth and intricacy of texture. Perhaps the peerless level of music making they have achieved in this album will finally bring this band the commercial hype they deserve.  After all, it was recently announced that the Punch Brothers will be returning to Bonnaroo this summer, and if after listening to this album you are hesitant to venture to their performance, remember this: these guys are even better live than recorded. They often nonchalantly play movements from Bach’s Brandenberg concerti for their encores. They’re that good.

Original Author: Martha Wydysh