Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Best Album I've Heard in Years

If you'd rather listen to it than read my jibber jabber, check out the myspace page.

"Punch" is the second album from the newly renamed "Punch Brothers," their first being "How To Grow a Woman From the Ground." It's unclassifiable music, which clearly springs from bluegrass but with influences too numerous to count. It mixes the idioms and instruments of bluegrass with the complex harmonies of contemporary classical and jazz. I guarantee you've never heard anything like it. It makes Bela Fleck sound tame and traditional. Chris Thile, the frontman for the group has been called "the most virtuosic American ever to play the mandolin," and the other members of the group receive less effusive praise only because their instruments are more common. Here they are put to good use playing things that have never before been played on these instruments.

The meat of the album is contained in a bewildering, four movement, forty minute piece entitled "The Blind Leaving the Blind." Despite the length and the stretches of dissonance, it's never inaccessible for long; the lyrics and melodies stay rooted in telling the emotional story of Chris's recent divorce. Every so often they break into an old-fashioned bluegrass jam, but then change keys in a few measures to remind you what you are listening to. On my first pass through it was exhausting to listen to, and it was a stretch for the band as well.

"For me, when I first received the score and saw what Chris was asking me to play on my instrument, that had to have been just as traumatic as him getting his divorce papers," Pikelny says. "He figured, 'Hey, if you have the notes there, you'll figure out a way to play it.'"
Chris Thile's voice, though adequate, doesn't match the quality of the playing and composition, and the album suffers from what Dan and I call "Great Album Syndrome." (Every truly great album must have one unbearable song, i.e. "The Crunge" or "Fitter Happier." On this album it's the first track, "Punch Bowl.") However, if hearing a banjo in a song doesn't immediately turn you off, (I understand that excludes a fair number of people) then give this a listen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain. (And the joy buried behind it.)I thought you'd like to know there's hope that the Best Album You've Heard in Years could be by far the best live show you've ever seen.

Punch Bowl, the live version, is friggin' incredible. However, on the album version Thile's voice is totally and completely shot. It's obviously thin and weak against the richness of the instruments' sound quality. It was probably the last thing they recorded. Thile's singing is noticeably stronger on other tracks, and luckily for the live show, the fiddle player has a much richer voice.

Witcher tends to sing a cover or two every night. I think you can still hear the Punch Brother's version of The Band's Ophelia at