Review Summary: Not everyone's glass of punch...
Punch Brothers is a curious beast. I first discovered them in a violin improvisation workshop, where my instructor played some of their music as an example of what bluegrass can become. I was taken in almost immediately, and even though I learned of many other artists that day (Travis Tritt being an unlikely new discovery), it was the mandolin and fiddle of Punch Brothers that stuck in my mind. “Hipster bluegrass”, my instructor called it.
Hoping to find the song I had heard in the workshop, I searched the web for weeks. I came across all their “hits” (“Rye Whiskey” was a big one) but heard nothing of the texture-infused work that introduced me to them. So I figured I might as well start with their semi-self-titled debut, the hour-long Punch.
As one would expect, it sounded very little like the atmospheric bluegrass I expected. “Punch Bowl”, the disc's opener, grows into a loud, barn-raising hoedown with abrasive, progressive chording. Its harmonies are bluegrassy, to be sure, but with a hellish twist, especially when combined with the unconventional instruments. Naturally, “Punch Bowl” soon became the most oft-skipped song in my library. I had some trouble digesting how the band that wrote “Punch Bowl” wrote the textured, subtle piece that brought me to them in the first place.
And so I set Punch aside for a very long time.
When I came back to it, it was with determination. I pushed through “Punch Bowl” (which was surprisingly easy to digest this time around; the chaos somehow fell into a coherent piece) and introduced my ears to the subtle, delicate opening of the four-movement, forty-three minute bluegrass symphony.
While not the song that introduced me to Punch Brothers (as far as I know, that song was “Sometimes”), “The Blind Leaving The Blind: First Movement” was certainly the one to spark my fascination with them. It's certainly a constantly evolving track; a bluegrass-tinged musical playground leads into a crescendo that fades out as Chris Thile's vocals in turn fade in, almost two minutes into the song. Interestingly, “Punch Bowl” is actually one of the most conventionally structured songs on the album (although even in the first few seconds, its notes and harmonies are anything but conventional).
The themes from the first movement's different sections carry throughout the movement's 12 minutes and, indeed, beyond that; not explicitly in notes but in the emotions and tones present in guitarist Chris Eldridge's strums, fiddle player Gabe Witcher's versatile bowings, banjo player Noam Pikelny's determined plucks, then-bassist Greg Garrison's masterful walks, and (of course), frontman Thile's genius mandolin and vocals. Because, at its core, the suite is a single, inseparable piece of music, I will not split it into its sections; to do so would be to devalue it. Suffice it to say that Thile's heart-breaking, urgent vocals and wonderful arrangements create wonderful bluegrass landscapes that can spin from delicate or torrentuous on a dime.
It's best to see Punch as a three-section album. Conventionally-structured “Punch Bowl”, bluegrass suite “The Blind Leaving The Blind”, and the rest of the album, albeit the CD's remaining three songs or the various digital downloads' four. The suite can be looked at almost as an album in its own right; to fans of progressive music, consider Steven Wilson's two-disc Grace For Drowning and its two sections. “Punch Bowl” is a curiosity in the album's structure, and I don't want to say its nothing more than that, but it stands out. “Sometimes” is an instrumental marvel; one of the most incredible, textured bluegrass pieces I have ever heard. It is a musical roller-coaster in many ways, going through many moods and sections. It's almost like a condensed, vocal-less “Blind Leaving The Blind”; if you're on the ledge in terms of purchasing this album, listen to “Sometimes” and imagine Thile's vocals on top. That's a fairly accurate example of the album's sound.
“Nothing, Then” is the album's dark, penultimate track, opening with Thile's delicate lyrics dancing on an urgent-yet-subdued bass line that builds and builds as the various other instruments come in, but never reaches an explosion. This is not due to the band's musical inattention, however; everything here feels very determined and intentional.
“It'll Happen”, the CD's closer, is a wonderful, romantic waltz, the second-shortest song on the album and definitely one of the most accessible. It's almost cafe music, really, and depending on one's state of mind, one is brought to pastoral landscapes, rainy, bittersweet Parisian street corners, or the existential romance of a young man travelling carefree and alone on an ocean liner. The official album ends there, but the Nonesuch Online bonus track, “Bailey”, as well as the iTunes bonus track, “I Know You Know”, are just too excellent to leave untouched.
“Bailey” is an old-fashioned-yet-accessible instrumental bluegrass romp. It's fairly conventional, but it showcases each of the Punch Brothers' talent and overall musicianship. It's impossible to choose a key player here although it is important to note that Thile, who is without a doubt one of the greatest musicians of his kind, thoughtfully and tastefully takes a step back; his melodies and solos are subdued, allowing the other incredible talents to take larger roles in the song's construction.
“I Know You Know” is, without a doubt, one of Thile's most brilliant works. Beautiful harmonies, delicate guitar introductions, and the screaming, focused insanity of the chorus make “I Know You Know” one of my personal favourite Punch Brothers songs. Chris Eldridge's leads melt into forceful strums, Gabe Witcher's forceful double-stops add urgency and melody, and Thile's soaring leads create some of the loveliest textures on this album.
All in all, this album is and will not be everyone's glass of punch. It can be downright eclectic at times; fans of country music will likely find it difficult, fans of progressive music will likely pass it over in favour of Tool or King Crimson, and fans of bluegrass will likely (and have; the wonderful documentary How To Grow A Band shows this in painful detail) walk out. This is, however, an ornate feather in Chris Thile's cap, and if one has the patience and open mind to appreciate it, Punch will stay a constant in their record player for many years to come.