Punch Brothers: Something New, Something Better

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I have a problem with suggestions, in that I take them too seriously. If I hear someone talk enthusiastically enough about something, there is a good chance I will give it shot. I was introduced to Punch Brothers by an interview Chris Hardwick (of @midnight fame) had with Ed Helms on his Nerdist podcast. Helms is an avid bluegrass fan and musician, as you may have suspected from his banjo playing on The Office. The two talked about Punch Brothers for a long time and with such passion that I decided to give a completely new (to me) genre a chance.

Punch Brothers is not your pop’s bluegrass. When I was introduced to them, I noticed some very progressive, sometimes even flirting with the avant-garde, styling within their songs. Some of the relentless high pitch bowing is even abrasive at times, but the overall effect of each song is stunning. My introduction to the band was the album Who’s Feeling Young Now (2013), which as an album isn’t groundbreaking, but by the Gods does it include some infectious tunes.  The apex of which, which I hope captures your attention, is the absolute masterpiece of “New York City”.

This song highlights their unbelievable technical prowess and astonishing songwriting ability. I was absolutely floored the first time I heard this song, possibly only because I have absolutely no grounding in the genre. It seemed so wildly different from anything I was used to, and I couldn’t get enough. Overall, the album has highs and lows, including a few songs that are just a little too bluegrass for my liking, but it is a magnificent collection of songs I would recommend to anyone who enjoys earnest, thoughtful music regardless of usual tastes.

What I really want to point your attention to is their newest release, The Phosphorescent Blues (2015). This album is massively dense, not fully bluegrass, but totally progressive and unforgiving. My fear for this band was that they would continue to focus on their popular straightforward songs, but they seem to be doing just the opposite. For example, the album opener “Familiarity”, totally ignores any standard song structure, never really has a climax, and dauntingly strings you on for over ten minutes.

Who are they trying to please with this? Sometimes I feel like the answer to that is me and me alone, but since that is unlikely, it seems their true ambition is to stretch the boundaries of the genre. The album includes a wide variety of styles, many of which I can’t even classify. Some are very rooted in bluegrass, some obviously aren’t, but they all seem to fit together. One of the other standout sounds, “Magnet”, is not very experimental song structure-wise, but again, seems to be without precedent.

My problem with suggestions usually forces me to waste a lot of time (because I have weird taste) but every once and awhile the addiction pays off. I never really have in interest in meeting celebrities because I would usually have very little to discuss with them, but I would love to meet Ed Helms just to thank him for this non-personal recommendation. Though I still need to explore their back catalog myself, if you even enjoy a minute of this band, you need to dive into these two albums.

(Get the new album from Nonesuch Records, or on Spotify, Image Via)

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