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Punch Brothers succumb to ‘Phosphorescent Blues’

| Thursday, January 29, 2015

web_punch-brothersSara Shoemake | The Observer

I discovered the Punch Brothers in the ideal hipster way. Drifting through the pixelated expanse of hip music blogs, I fatefully stumbled upon a “Best Albums of 2012″ list from the depths. An album titled, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” stood atop the list, perhaps asking me if I was indeed too youthful to check out a record the blog had labelled “bluegrass.” I was 19 and ready. 45 minutes later, I was convinced that the grass really was bluer on the other side of the fence.

The brilliance of Punch Brothers is their fusion of complex indie-rock songwriting with standard bluegrass instrumentation and virtuoso performance. It isn’t every bluegrass band that covers Kid A, after all. However, Punch Brothers is more than just a musical genre mish-mash. “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” showcased gorgeous arrangements and production, filling every nook and cranny with one stringed instrument or another. Chris Thile’s vocals coaxed, snarled and soared to fit his clever lyrics, managing to shine atop the band’s collective sound.

Unfortunately, the latest record is struck by the “Phosphorescent Blues,” as its title suggests. The fifth record from the Punch Brothers jumps from one style of music to the next but seems to have a great bit of the magic the band captured on previous albums. Gone are bursts of energy and great rushing tempos that make bluegrass so engaging. Gone are the bone-chillingly beautiful moments that highlighted “Who’s Feeling Young Now?.” The pretty melodies and catchy choruses are less pretty and less catchy. The record is instead chock-full of overlong transition periods between areas of interest that serve essentially as stretches of merely pleasant jamming.

Because of this, “The Phosphorescent Blues” often falls clumsily under its own weight. “Familiarity,” the album’s opener, is a primary example of this. The track shifts from section to section with interesting yet underwhelmingly gripping chord progressions. Unanchored by any verses or choruses and lacking a rewarding latter half, “Familiarity” does, in fact, seem familiar upon first listen because there’s absolutely nothing that would make it stand out as new or unusual. Ultimately, the track is 10 minutes of dead weight at the opening of the record that inspires very little more than a press of the skip track button.

The rest of the record presents better but similarly disappointing tracks. “Julep” is a pretty, ambling track that clumsily attempts and fails to reconcile the themes of a relaxing drink and dying in one’s sleep. The next track, “Passepied,” is a rather nice Debussy cover that recalls the Penguin Cafe Orchestra without making a case for its superiority to the aforementioned group’s material. The songs on “Phosphorescent Blues” that most recall the best of the band’s previous record, singles “I Blew It Off” and “My Oh My,” play as less-energetic versions of their predecessors. The folky crescendo-to-choir end of “Little Lights” recalls Sufjan Stevens but can’t stand next to those tracks (see any track on “Michigan”). In fact, the only outside-inspired track that merits its place on the record is “Boll Weevil,” a stomp-along jam which could easily hold its own on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack.

There’s ambition and inspiration aplenty on “Phosphorescent Blues,” but this time around, the Punch Brothers don’t seem to make the most of it. In the past, they’ve seamlessly adopted different styles of songwriting and arrangement into the bluegrass sound, creating unique and excellent takes on disparate kinds of music. It’s not a record that signals the downfall of the band, but rather one that acts a placeholder until hopefully superior songs arrive in the future. Here’s to hoping for another blog-worthy Punch Brothers record in the future.

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  • Jonathan

    This review completely misses. This is perhaps the Punch Brothers best album yet. To say that it is full of “merely pleasant jamming” is at best inaccurate, and at worst lazy. This album is thematically and conceptually much tighter than PB’s previous work, and addresses issues of modern interest: technology, connectivity and how these things affect our relationships. From a technical perspective, it is not incorrect to call this music groundbreaking. Rather than jumping disparately from jazz to bluegrass to classical as may have sometimes occurred on past records, we find a more cohesive sound on this record – but no less innovative one. This is not the band to look to when all you want is fun bluegrass romps. They can do this (and the live show will prove it), but they are much more. I encourage the author to revisit this record with fresh ears – I think he will be pleasently surprised with what he finds.

    • MegN

      I disagree, I don’t think fresh ears are needed. After my first play through I wasn’t thrilled with this album either. But I kept finding myself returning and with every subsequent listen I love it more and more.