Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012)

Punch Bothers (there is no definite article) began as a backing band for a Chris Thile project.

Chris Thile was a teen bluegrass prodigy who then rose to fame as a member of Nickel Creek (not to be confused with Nickelback).

Together they are one of the most gifted, talented bands around. Most of them started off in bluegrass, but although the band has a classic bluegrass line up (fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass) they position themselves as being about anything bar bluegrass.

You might also see a picture of Punch Brothers with their instruments and think they’re something similar to Mumford and Sons. But the Mumfords don’t have the instrumental fire power nor the breadth of vision that this band has.

Bluegrass has always prized a high level of musical skill, but a significant number of musicians who learned their trade in bluegrass have modernised the genre or moved into the so-called “new acoustic” genre which takes bluegrass skills into new territories. Punch Brothers are a notable example of this broadening of horizons.

Thile, the principle songwriter (though all compositions are jointly credited) has been involved in a broad range of projects, ranging from the bluegrass that he first made his name in to new age chamber music in the company of Yo-Yo Ma. Here the compositions tend towards the less sophisticated (for him) and often tend towards a contemporary indie rock sound – or an acoustic version thereof. But they branch out in other directions too. We might consider the two covers that are included to be close to the poles of the range of music on this album.

“Kid A” is a Radiohead number given a great arrangement with lots of atmospheric parts.

“Fliippen” is from, Swedish folk band Väsen and it’s the closest they get to folk or bluegrass. The band really tear into this one with great ensemble playing before they break into the solos.

But they also try a sort of vaudeville sound on “Patchwork Girlfriend” and the opening “Movement and Location” mixes minimalism with rhythmic sophistication.

Nothing seems to be too much for them and they repeatedly demonstrate very high levels of skill and clever ideas. Noam Pikelny often catches the ear with very fast but cleanly executed banjo parts. Thile gets in some jaw-dropping mandolin solos. But a lot of the best playing is not soloing but the band working brilliantly as a dynamic ensemble with very tight timing and great attack.

This band has really a lot going on. Not just an eclectic vision and wide range, but the skills to execute whatever it is they conceive. The compositions (mostly but not exclusively Thile’s) are strong and engaging. They have a fabulous rhythmic drive despite the absence of any kind of percussion. They have fine vocals too. Thile takes most of the lead vocals but Witcher does a good job on “Hundred Dollars” and let’s hope he does more vocals in the future. Like all the best acoustic players (and these guys are all amongst the very best) they understand light and shade and make good use of dynamics to enhance the effect of the music.

The recording is not of the same standard, is not what an acoustic band with such fine skills deserves. At times the compression that is applied flattens out the dyanmic range, and often there is deliberate (well… so one can reasonably conclude) clipping and distortion. Gimmicky effects are applied to the vocals on some tracks.

But whilst the sound could better suit the band, if you have any liking for high class acoustic music, especially with some breadth, then there is much to enjoy here. The constantly impressive playing, their exuberance, and their unerring musical instincts trump all else.

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