The Punch Brothers: “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”

The Punch Brothers have everything they could possibly need to make a killer bluegrass record– except for killer bluegrass songs. In Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek, they have a rousing mandolinist, a passionate bandleader, and an increasingly commanding lead singer. They also have banjo, upright bass, fiddle, and acoustic guitar; and now, in Jacquire King, they have a producer who gives their sound focus and heft. Past Punch Brothers albums were sprawling and cerebral; this one hits hard, emotionally accessible but no less brainy because of it. But still: Where are those bluegrass songs?

The simple answer, I think, is that this band simply has no interest in being a bluegrass band, a neo-classical quintet, a mountain folk posse, or any of the other boxes people try to put them in. Ever since Nickel Creek disbanded Thile has been leading this new ensemble toward exploring the outer limits of what an acoustic string band can be, and it’s increasingly obvious that they thrive on their own resourcefulness as a band.  The Punch Brothers confound tradition, not the other way around; how else to explain a performance of Radiohead’s “Kid A” that’s done not as a twanged-up novelty, but as a repositioning of the song into an all-acoustic setting that’s every bit as creepy and mournful as the original?

There is one other instrumental cover here, of a song called “Flippen” by the Swedish group Vasen; it’s the closest thing to Appalachian folk music you’ll find here, funnily enough. The other songs are pop songs, rock songs, and songs that trade in small-ensemble classical music but pack an immediate whallop. My favorite songs on the record are the jauntier, Tin Pan Alley-styled numbers. With a band like this, you expect the focus to be on the instrumental chops, but these guys have proven, here and elsewhere, that they can play. “This Girl,” meanwhile, gives us proof things we may previously have questioned– the band’s sense of showmanship, their way around a pop hook, their sense of humor. It’s a song about a backslider whose belief in God is temporarily and conditionally rekindled, whose faith just might be stirred if only his prayers are answered and he lands the affections of, well, this girl.

There are plenty of other moments of good humor, especially “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a spindly, gypsy folk song that almost touches on musical theater with its dramatic flourishes– all rendered by the acoustic five-piece band, I’ll remind you. The song is a good-humored ode to romantic indecision; its line “that’d be against the law, even in Utah” is my favorite on the record. What impresses about The Punch Brothers, though, is their sense of invention, which thrives in this acoustic setting. Opener “Movement and Location” is all about the rhythmic pulsating of those strings, staking out the band’s command of space and physicality; the title cut if furious, slamming rock, the lack of electricity be damned; “Hundred Dollars” and “New York City” are both stormy travelogues with lyrics by Josh Ritter, and both make for fine barn-burners. There are ballads as well, the two spare and spooky instrumentals, and a concluding song, “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” that returns to Tin Pan Alley but this time excavates darker undertones.

Each song contains inventive and pitch-perfect flourishes from the different players, something I’d attribute to Thile’s leadership; the album is also packed with hooks, with physical heft, and with moments of spare and affecting beauty, a range of emotions I’d attribute to King. Best of all, the songs are all just superb, evoking time and place, rendering mood and genre perfectly by stretching the all-acoustic setup to its maximum flexibility. That I attribute to the fact that The Punch Brothers is just  great band, and this is the album where they seem like they’ve really begun to shine.

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