|Track||Album / EP|
|Sleek White Baby||The Wireless EP|
|The Blind Leaving the Blind||Punch|
|This Is The Song (Good Luck)||Antifogmatic|
|This Girl||Who's Feeling Young Now?|
|Don't Get Married Without Me||Who's Feeling Young Now?|
|Kid A||Who's Feeling Young Now?|
|Passepied||The Phosphorescent Blues|
|Julep||The Phosphorescent Blues|
|I Blew It Off||The Phosphorescent Blues|
Contributor: David Lewis
Bluegrass musicians tend to split into two camps. The traditionalists are those who believe that if it isn’t how Bill Monroe (Toppermost #174) played it, then that ain’t no part of nothin’ (as Monroe used to say). The other group, who started to appear in the 1960s, believe that bluegrass should evolve, should progress. That generation that grew up with rock and roll, with the Beatles, believed that music should fuse, should evolve, should change. It should remain vital. That generation: Sam Bush Toppermost #155), David Grisman, Béla Fleck (Toppermost #591 – a few years later), Tony Rice and on and on grew up on the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bob Marley and many other kinds of classic rock. They are now seeing the next generation come through – lovers of Radiohead, U2, R.E.M. and newer bands. Can bluegrass – an acoustic, old-fashioned (it appeared as long ago as 1939, by some counts) – manage to remain a creative force?
The story in brief: in the 1990s, there was a band of preternaturally talented kids called Nickel Creek. The standout in this band was a cheeky, but insanely talented, mandolin player named Chris Thile. Nickel Creek break up, and Thile goes on to a fairly successful solo career. He releases (eventually) an album called How To Grow A Woman From The Ground: he has on this album, some of the very best young bluegrass players.
From this, four join Thile and the group calls themselves Punch Brothers, after flirting with How to Grow a Band and The Tensions Mountain Boys. They are named after a line in the Mark Twain story “A Literary Nightmare”. As the next 10 songs will attest, they are among the very cutting edge in bluegrass, in what we might term Americana, in virtuosic musical ability and in composition and interpretation. They see themselves as a classical ensemble with bluegrass …
Punch Brothers are Chris Thile (mandolin), Chris Eldridge (guitar), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Gabe Witcher (violin), Paul Kowert (bass). Kowert had replaced their original bass player Greg Garrison. Chris Eldridge replaced guitarist Bryan Sutton. Note, Punch Brothers are strictly acoustic – there are no effects and minimal amplification. One of their concerts that I saw in 2016, it was the five of them around one condenser microphone, and I’ve never heard a better live sound. This is the future of bluegrass, as well as its present. They’ve released four albums and an EP. All songs are of equal value. I’m not going to do them in strict chronological order: let’s see if we can go on a musical journey.
Let’s open with the single from their EP, The Wireless, released in 2015 – Sleek White Baby. A little different from the usual, this screed against the marketing of mobile phones seems odd coming from these Gen-Ys. But then, that’s why I reject such nomenclature like ‘Gen-Y’. Ed Helms, noted comic actor (he’s in the US The Office, for example), gives the monologue.
From their official debut album, Punch, I’ve added Thile’s first movement of his major composition The Blind Leaving The Blind. An extraordinary work, it shows that this is not a group of unsophisticated rural boys talking on the old cabin by the hill. A gorgeous piece, the whole of it is worth listening to.
Antifogmatic, the first album to feature Kowert, is a real gem, and in many ways Punch Brothers’ first real album, as opposed to a Thile compositional showcase.
Rye Whiskey is the first track I’ve taken from this: Punch Brothers show their bluegrass chops. One of Punch Brothers themes is the difficulty of relationships – this song has a clever lyric – an unresolved sentence: “have I ever told you ‘bout the time I …” Et in Arcadia Ego, indeed.
The closing track This Is The Song (Good Luck) is a gorgeous exploration of melodic and harmonic themes. For exceptionally talented players, there’s a minimalist approach they use. Parts wind around parts, and they’ve never wasted a note.
The hard to define track This Girl from Who’s Feeling Young Now? is yet another beautifully constructed piece. Thile might want to be the “happiest backslider” in the world, but this backslider finds this track makes me happy too.
This next one is one of the most challenging pieces in the Punch Brothers repertoire. Don’t Get Married Without Me jumps time signatures. The banjo doubles the fiddle – two instruments with vastly different techniques, and Thile’s voice soars over the top.
All the great bands play tribute to their heroes. I’m going to commit heresy here and say I prefer Punch Brothers’ version of Kid A (see clip at foot of post) to the original by Radiohead. This is not to say I dislike the original. But this version is very good.
The Phosphorescent Blues is their album from 2015. And, I think it’s their best. The Debussy interpretation Passepied reminds us how versatile they are. Debussy is a popular composer among bluegrassers (Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer have done Debussy as well) – his advanced use of jazz harmonies and rhythms is the hook, I guess.
Julep is that modern take of the ‘old cabin on the hill’. One of the issues that progressive bluegrass players had with older music is that their aspirations weren’t those of the 1920s. Nonetheless, here’s the old cabin on the hill, remade for the 21st century.
Finally, to come full circle, I Blew It Off is another observation of how mobile phones distract and distort our relationships. “There’s nothing to say/ that couldn’t just as well be sent/ I”ve got an American share/ of 21st century stress.”
Looking at things, from say, 1980: the rise of the synth, the rise of electricity as a means of music production, we could have, with great confidence, predicted the end of vital acoustic music. Punch Brothers are one, and possibly the most important, of those acts who come of age in the 21st century. Vital, exciting and modern (or actually post-modern) in the best sense, may they continue to punch on.
David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. A guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country. He writes on music here.