Artists on Artists
On 31, May 2015 | In Artists on Artists | By jane
If you were to label The Punch Brothers as a bluegrass band because they play acoustic string instruments, you would be in for quite a surprise when you listen to their latest album, The Phosphorescent Blues. I love The Punch Brothers. Let’s just get that out there first and foremost. But I also love that I don’t love their music straight away. They take risks. They go deep. They demand listening and listening again, and then you start to get it, and you develop a lasting bond with their music that keeps delivering with each successive listen.
It’s bold, especially given we’re living in 2015, in the age of instant gratification, and instant access to instantly catchy pop songs that leave no trace as they return to the wireless ether from whence they came, leaving room for another video of an eight-year old shredding on electric guitar in our Facebook feed.
The Phosphorescent Blues is a social commentary on just that—a concept album in a vein similar to Radiohead’s OK Computer and The Beach Boys’ Smile before it. The main lyrical theme is one of virtual connection via smart phones replacing real relationships, and the yearning for meaningful visceral experience in the digital age. The album starts, almost as an affront to short attention spans, with a ten and half minute epic: Familiarity. This opener is essentially the whole album in miniature, covering a vast range of lyrical and sonic ideas across multiple movements. Band leader and mandolin virtuoso, Chris Thile, starts the song by repeatedly playing about as simple a D major arpeggio as you can get, mind you much cleaner than should be possible on a mandolin. But then as the lyrics enter and swirls of strings fade in and cut away, the notes change and modulate into a curious flurry of notes that become bewildering until an unexpected chord calls the song to a brief halt, echoing away and repeating like a phone ringtone, and the journey has begun.
Most of the songs have multiple movements and themes that link to each other in unexpected ways. Perhaps the Punch Brothers are catering for our modern short attention spans after all, managing to make four-minute songs sound more like a sequence of interconnected 45-second ideas, reminiscent of the B-side of the Abbey Road album. Interludes of rich vocal harmonies shift from Gregorian to Beach-Boys-eque to bluegrass, and the music shifts gears continuously, rich and layered, then spiralling into the distance as repeated vocal lines disappear into reverb to be replaced by naked delicate notes on mandolin and guitar that are so forward they sound like they’re in the room with you. Melody and counter-melody call across the sonic field from violin to double-bass, from guitar to banjo, and at times it seems like a single musical line seamlessly jumps from one instrument to the next. The production is amazing, with each instrument and voice sitting somewhere different in the space. Occasional use of drums, a first for the Punch Brothers on this album, is sure to upset some purists, but I think it works, especially in the track Forgotten.
Interspersed between the originals are two classical compositions and one traditional old-time tune. The single, Blew it Off, is the only track that could be called radio-friendly, and is almost a parody of itself, with a pop-rock beat underlying lyrics like ‘there’s nothing to say that couldn’t just as well be sent’, and references to being interrupted by a phone vibrating on the table continuing the theme of disconnectedness in the ultra-connected modern era.
The last song, Little Lights, referring to the sea of smart-phone screens in a crowd, is a mirror of the first song in many ways, and as a final irony, uses vocals sent in via social media to close with a crowd-sourced choir of thousands singing of their worship of technology.
So put away your phone, close Facebook, press play and soak in some amazing music.
Review written by Josh Bennett for Mojo Junction – ‘Artists on Artists’
Buy ‘The Phosphorescent Blues’ on iTunes
Check out Punch Brothers Website