Review Summary: What happens when you get the best bluegrass musicians in the world together, who have extreme broad tastes in music (such as an affinity for great art rock such as Radiohead) and ask them to write whatever they would like? Punch Brothers happens.
So I know what you’re probably thinking right now. “It sure has been a long time since I heard a great new progressive bluegrass album.” Well the wait is finally over, for the Punch Brothers have released their new album “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” This third studio album of theirs finds the Punch Brother’s producing an album that everyone knew they were always capable of, but were too preoccupied with exploring the fringes of music to bother writing music that would be accessible to the masses. This is an album that showcases some of the greatest musicians on their respective instruments in the world today, making music that has their signature stamp of complexity while at the same time becoming a little more accessible in structure. Hopefully this will earn them some more of the respect that they so greatly deserve.
A little background on the group as I am sure that most people around here have never heard of this group before. This is a super group of all-star bluegrass musicians, headed by one the worlds most virtuosic mandolin players Chris Thile. Chris Thile started his career with Nickel Creek, a pop bluegrass group that was adored by critics and fans alike. As good as that group was, Thile’s talent always shined through a little stronger than his band mates, and it was easy to see that his musical path was going to take him towards more complex and challenging musical endeavors. His solo albums, also amazing progressive style bluegrass (check out Strokes cover of “Heart in a Cage” or White Stripes “Dead Leaves on a Dirty Ground) showed off his abilities to explore very experimental harmonic structures while also showcasing his amazing dexterity on the mandolin. Nickel Creek disbanded and his solo endeavors lead him to joining forces with some of the most talented musicians in the bluegrass community. Thus Punch Brothers was born.
Where the Punch Brother’s first two albums were great departures from the pop sensibilities of Nickel Creek, this new album finds the Punch Brothers drifting back towards what could almost be considered pop music. The previous two albums were very experimental, frequently exploring the atonal realms of music, something that is very polarizing, and appealing to very few. This new music is still challenging, and at times, mixes dissonant melodies. What they have seemingly mastered with this new album though, is the ability to keep the brunt of the songs in more familiar harmonic territory, and through using dissonance and atonal structures more sparingly, still make the songs have that challenging “Punch Brothers” sound.
Each song on this new album creates its own unique sense of character, leading to a very well rounded album. A song like “Its no Concern of Yours” has a very bluegrass melodic theme that is spun around a melancholic pop chord structure. The title track “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” finds shifting up-tempo sections, with aggressive vocals and a more rock vibe. “Patchwork Girlfreind” mixes some vaudeville style melodies with almost Beatlesesque song structure, in the process making for one of the more fun songs on the album. “Hundred Dollars” has a very groovy, blues like feel that again explores some unconventional rhythms and harmonies, while emphasizing a familiar rock structure. “This Girl” is a more uplifting pop like song; also showcasing this groups amazing vocal abilities. They all can sing very proficiently, creating beautiful harmonies with very complex vocal lines.
There is a reason that Punch Brothers has covered Radiohead so many times (check youtube for many amazing covers). The rhythmic complexity of a song such as “Kid A” or “Packed Like Sardines…” clearly resonates deeply with the group as songwriters. The lead single “Movement and Location” highlights some similar complex rhythms. At times it seems as if the banjo or the mandolin is playing a rhythmic part that belongs to a completely different song. It clashes so much, but like melodic dissonance, this rhythmic dissonance resolves and in its own right can be beautiful, if you find the pulse and let the clashing meters wash over you.
So what’s the bottom line? With this album you are going to hear some of the most amazing musicians you will ever hear in life. Each member is a complete virtuoso on their instrument, and collectively gel in a way that we wish every super group would. On paper putting such great talent together sounds great, but in reality usually leads to great musicians writing mediocre music. Punch Brothers is the exception to the rule. They manage to play the type of music that seems to transcend the usual boundaries of music, and leads in to territories where music truly becomes “Art”.