Punch Brothers formed in 2006. Founder Chris Thile (vocals, mandolin) joined with four other virtuoso musicians: fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pikelny, bassist Paul Kowert and guitarist Chris Eldridge.
I saw the band live in Raleigh North Carolina at the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in 2013, just after the iconic and traditional bluegrass outfit Del McCoury Band. What immediately followed was breathtaking in its contrast.
Punch Brothers love to mix it up and pursue the band members’ many musical interests – jam grass, folk, chamber grass, classical, indie rock and vocal harmony material. Their musicianship is audacious but remains true to the vastly diverse material and its heritage. The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch Records/Warner Music Australia) is the band’s fifth album since 2008’s Punch and it has uber-producer T Bone Burnett at the helm.
They’ve worked with Burnett numerous times – most recently on the soundtrack for the Joel and Ethan Coen film Inside Llewyn Davis and the related, marvellous Town Hall/Showtime concert Another Day, Another Time.
Thile explains one of the ways the music on The Phosphorescent Blues reflects the band’s view of modern life: “We often go to bars after shows or writing sessions, to be around other people for a little while. And I’d see people just like me on their phones, telling people they wish they were there, texting people who really are there. Then a song would come on that somebody likes and then they see that someone else does too and maybe they both sing it together and that moment is spiritual, some shared experience, and they are interacting in the flesh, with their fellow man. And that’s communion. Many of the songs on this record dive into that: how do we cultivate beautiful, three-dimensional experiences with our fellow man in this day and age?” The back cover of the album pictures all members together uncommunicative, staring at their phones, faces ghostly (ghastly?) illuminated by the screens.
Shortly before the sessions began, Thile and Witcher met with Burnett and discovered the producer had the very same things on his mind. In fact, he’d just given a commencement address at the University of Southern California on the subject of technology and human interaction. Witcher remembers, “Thile and I looked at each and said, ‘This is unbelievable. It’s exactly what we are writing about.’ So this was a perfect, serendipitous union.”
All the songs on The Phosphorescent Blues were written and arranged by Punch Brothers, except “Passepied” (Claude Debussy), “Prelude” (Alexander Scriabin) and “Boll Weevil” (traditional). The first track “Familiarity” makes you stand to attention, its themes and insights around people and technology captivating during its substantial length (over ten minutes). The arrangements are complex and ever-changing but accessible. “Julep” is a joy reflection of a life well lived:
I died happy in my sleep
I died happy in my sleep
Our children around and you looking down from heaven’s a julep on the porch
Heaven’s a julep on the porch
You and me rocking the grandfather clock is tick tick tick tick talking
to the time we used to wind it
God the time we used to wind it…
The evocative “I Blew It Off” has chamber-like strings and Beach Boy harmonies and stridently deals with coping with ’21st century stress’. “Magnet” is a driving tale which deals with relationship issues with a Devo-like riff and jauntiness, rising to a king tide at the end. “My Oh My” showcases Thile’s vocals and suggests taking a deep breath and looking at the natural beauty around us “’cause we can’t listen to…everyone”. The musical interlude here is a triumph – the interplay and the subtlety a joy to the ears. “Boll Weevil” is more traditional fare, a nod to the land, the honor and simplicity of farm life and its traditions. “Forever” is a delightful lullaby, containing a soothing vibe while “Between 1st and A” is a beautifully-constructed love piece. “Little Light” again returns to the theme and problems of technological distractions. The two instrumentals referred to above add a delightful balance to the collection.
The Phosphorescent Blues is bold. It is a body of work that is incredible in every distinct element – thematically, songwriting, vocals, arrangements, production and, above all, the musical dexterity of this imperious quintet. Every moment devoted to the album will unveil something new and enchanting.
Punch Brothers are headlining Fayettevilleroots festival in August. It will be an unfettered pleasure to see them again.
Produced by T-Bone Burnette, with Jay Bellerose on drums and Burnette on electric guitar.