One of the things I plan to do on this blog is post short(-ish) reviews of things I’ve listened to, watched and read that I think are worth writing about. (Whether you’ll share my opinions or not is another matter…) I intend to post these reviews mainly on Tuesdays (though not necessarily every week).
This week’s review is of 2011 release Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the last album from US band Punch Brothers (named after a short story by Mark Twain titled “Punch, Brother, Punch”). I have Spotify to thank for bringing this band to my attention; whatever criticism can be levelled at the online music platform, the range of my listening has expanded considerably over the 18 months or so I’ve been a subscriber.
Wikipedia describes Punch Brothers’ genre as “progressive bluegrass”. Now, before you run screaming into the bushes at the mention of bluegrass, you should know that I’m no big fan of country music – so if that’s the association that comes to mind for you, please set it aside before you read on and/or listen.
The musical driving force behind Punch Brothers is arguably multi-award-winning mandolinist and vocalist Chris Thile, who has variously been described as a child prodigy (he released his first album at age 13), a virtuoso, and someone whose skills are “dazzling” and “staggering”. A former member of now defunct and critically acclaimed trio Nickel Creek, Thile also has a solo career alongside his involvement with Punch Brothers. The band’s other members are fiddle player Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert.
Now, to the music. Basically, these guys are able to use their purely acoustic instruments to create an astounding range of moods. The style ranges from relatively gentle ballad-type songs like No Concern of Yours to seriously, foot-tappingly rhythmic numbers like Hundred Dollars and title track Who’s Feeling Young Now?, taking in along the way a couple of tracks with a distinctly nautical flavour (Soon or Never and Flippen). Meanwhile, the quirky This Girl and Patchwork Girlfriend provide an endearing touch of humour and whimsy.
While there’s no denying that the composition and instrumentation is often abrasive and arresting and the melodies and harmonies sometimes verge on the discordant, the writers know how to stay just on the right side of the line that separates boundary pushing from outright weirdness. The best way to listen to this album is on a good pair of headphones, allowing you to fully appreciate the surprising richness, depth and range of sonic textures on offer.
The lyrics also cover a good deal of textual ground. Thile himself is from a strict religious background, and while a young career in the music industry and a messy divorce have left him far from the safer religious undertones found in some of his earlier material, there is an underlying searching for honesty and reality here that belies his roots and the quest for truth he is perhaps still on.
In summary, if you like mainstream music that offers a neatly structured verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus package and is easy on the ears and undemanding to listen to, give this a wide berth. If, however, like me you’re bored of listening to shallow lyrics set to unimaginative music played by uninspiring musicians, you should definitely listen to Punch Brothers. Even if you only listen once, you’ll hear something fresh and different. And if you like what you hear, there are another two albums that came before this one (the 2008 Punch and 2010’s Antifogmatic) – though, to my mind, Who’s Feeling Young Now? is clearly the best of the three.
I’ll end by sharing a track with you. I’ll resist the urge to find the “best” one – something I would find very difficult anyway, given the variety on offer. Instead, I’ll just give you the song that happens to be playing right now as I type: