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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1683

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Punch Brothers: Who's Feeling Young Now?
by George Graham

(Nonesuch Records 529777 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/25/2012)

Bluegrass has gone through a number of stages in recent years. Before the 1980s, there were mainly the traditionalists, and if you played something too eclectic, you were likely to be carted off by the "folk police." But by the 1980s came the so-called New Acoustic scene, with a generation of virtuosic musicians who played bluegrass instrumentation but came from rock and jazz backgrounds, led by such people as David Grisman, Tony Rice, Sam Bush and Tony Trischka. Twenty years later, in the early 2000s, came a further generation of acoustic artists who expanded the bounds of bluegrass with creative compositions and often a more refined vocal style. This post-new-acoustic school was led by Alison Krauss and Union Station and Nickel Creek.

Since the dissolution of Nickel Creek, the group's most prominent member, mandolinist Chris Thile -- who started as a prodigy recording his first album in his early teens -- has been further expanding the range of his music, first on solo albums, and then with a band that grew out of Thile's 2006 release How to Grow a Woman from the Ground. First as a backing band for Thile, it has since grown into a musical cooperative, called Punch Brothers. They have just released their third CD under that name, called Who's Feeling Young Now?

One of the things that the group initially set out to do is to distance themselves as much as possible from bluegrass. Though they happened to play the acoustic instrumentation of bluegrass, mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle and acoustic bass, their music ran somewhere between art rock and alternative rock, with elaborate multi-part arrangements, and occasionally the aggressive energy level associated with the alternative scene.

While many in eclectic acoustic music are based in either Nashville or the San Francisco Bay area, Punch Brothers, who list their band name without a "the" in front of it, are based in New York City. In fact, while Thile had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn for a while, he decided to go back to the same Manhattan apartment building that he inhabited when they worked on an earlier recording. On this new album, Thile takes a slightly less prominent role instrumentally, though he still does all but one of the lead vocals.

The personnel remains the same as on their last album Antifogmatic from 2010, with Noam Pikelny, a veteran of the band Leftover Salmon, on banjo; Chris Eldridge, who had played in Tony Rice's band and the Seldom Scene, on guitar; Gabe Witcher on fiddle and Paul Kowart on bass. From their time touring and recording together since 2008, they have become an increasingly tight, collaborative group, with the musical compositions being listed as joint efforts. All play at a remarkably high musical level, and their compositions have lots of twists and turns in their creative arrangements. And again, the music has not much to do with bluegrass, other than the instrumentation. Even the recorded sound pulls the music away from the traditional. More on that later.

Though this is a band of intense instrumental picking, their lyrics are also interesting. Some are about relationships, which Thile says he has trouble getting away from when writing songs, but the words can be rather impressionistic in the art rock tradition.

The CD opens with one of the pieces along those lines, Movement and Location. There are lots of interesting things going on such as the eccentric rhythm and the minimalist-style figures on the banjo. <<>>

The following track is more similar to previous Punch Brothers material. This Girl is a kind of quirky acoustic art-rock love song. <<>>

More bluegrassy in sound is a piece called No Concern of Yours, but there is still plenty of eclecticism, along with more great playing. <<>>

The title track Who's Feeling Young Now? is an example of Punch Brothers essentially doing alternative rock on acoustic instruments, though few alternative rock bands have the musical chops of these guys. <<>>

The band includes two instrumentals on the CD, both of which are somewhat unlikely covers. The first is called Flippen (The Flip). It's by the Swedish band Väsen, who bases their music on Nordic folk. It shows Punch Brothers at their best, with top notch playing and creative arrangement ideas. <<>>

Yet another facet of the band comes out on the song Patchwork Girlfriend, which evokes a kind of old cabaret or theatrical sound, while the quintet can't resisting throwing in some interesting musical ingredients. <<>>

Fiddle player Gabe Witcher gets his first lead vocal on a Punch Brothers record on the song called Hundred Dollars. It gets one to wondering why he does not do more. Musically, it's more along the lines of a complicated art rock composition. <<>>

The other instrumental track is Punch Brothers' treatment is Radiohead's Kid A. It turns out to be perhaps the most eclectic arrangement on this highly creative album. <<>>

About the most contemplative-sounding piece on this generally upbeat release is Soon or Never. It a kind of quasi-unrequited-love song. <<>>

Who's Feeling Young Now? the new third CD by the remarkably eclectic acoustic quintet Punch Brothers is another masterful effort by some of the brightest minds in bluegrass-instrumented music. They have maintained that this is not bluegrass in the past, though currently on their website, they seem to be more accepting about being associated with the more traditional genre. The playing is outstanding, and the composing and arranging are highly creative, on the par with the progressive rock scene as played on acoustic instruments. The writing, more shared equally among the members, continues to be fascinating and very creative.

However, I have one significant beef. In our grade for audio quality, we'll give this CD about a C-minus. The producer-engineer, Jacquire King, who also has worked with Tom Waits and Kings of Leon, did a decent job with the production, but he was definitely the wrong man to be recording and mix engineer. The CD booklet shows a forest of vintage and antique microphones being used. And there were some effects created by amplifying the acoustic instruments in the studio. But the sound comes across as thin and cold, particularly on Chris Thile's vocal. And the use of volume compression to crank up the loudness artificially is ham-handed. While there are lots of worse-sounding albums, a group at this musical level requires a recording at a similar quality, and indeed the last Punch Brothers' album Antifogmatic did boast excellent sonic quality and dynamic range. So this recording is definitely a big step backwards sonically.

Unfortunate sound notwithstanding, if you like your acoustic music eclectic, you can't get much better than Punch Brothers' latest opus.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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