Friday, May 20, 2011
grass|roots :: Punch Brothers - Punch
By Jon Stone | @jwstone
grass|roots ep. 3
Tomorrow night the Pabst will welcome The Punch Brothers to Millwaukee for a second of three Wisconsin stops on what front-man Chris Thile has been calling the third annual "Hypothermeanderings Tour." (Madison, they'll be at the UW Union Theater tonight and at the UW Platteville Center for the Arts on the 6th).
In 2008 the Punch Brothers released Punch, an album that my iTunes tells me I have listened to more than any other in my collection. It was not just a favorite album of 2008, it has become one of my favorite records period. It, for me, does something distinctly unique and innovative -- something that very few bands in both popular and bluegrass music are attempting, let alone succeeding in. Chris and his brothers Punch are at once reinvigorating a genre and pushing that genre into new and progressive realms. But what is more remarkable is that they are doing so in a completely accessible way. Much of modern "progressive" bluegrass is as likely to alienate new listeners as attract them. The Punch Brothers do the opposite.
I first became acquainted with Chris Thile through his work as a member of the band Nickel Creek. Thile, along with the siblings Sara and Sean Watkins brought bluegrass to the masses with songs that drew on the bluegrass tradition, but infused it with pop sensibilities. This, I think, was the genesis of what I was talking about above. Nickel Creek made a move that made the music not only approachable by said masses, but relevant as a step forward for popular bluegrass. The Punch Brothers have kept pushing.
Though all three members of Nickel Creek contributed work to the band (and both are now doing great solo work), Thile's songwriting, voice, and virtuoso mandolin playing impressed me most about the band. 2005's Why Should the Fire Die especially began to show off Thile as pulling out ahead of the pack with tunes like "Helena," "Can't Complain" and "Doubting Thomas." Each which, while fairly straight ahead pop tunes, had heart-wrenching narratives of not just failed relationships, but the deeper issues that surround trauma: issues of belief and faith. Thile often comes back around to religious imagery in his current work which he uses as a kind of motif to represent the unrepresentable. Singing about the disintegration of a marriage (which he does on Punch) becomes analogous to the disintegration of faith itself. It's devastating to listen in on, but unflinchingly poignant and beautiful.
His first major solo release, Not All Who Wander are Lost, came out in 2001 just as Nickel Creek was gaining steam (though he's been putting out records since he was nine...! His first, Leading Off came out in 1993 and has recently been reissued by Sugar Hill). A mostly instrumental record, Not All Who Wander boasts collaborations with Stuart Duncan, Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton -- many of whom who had, for years, already been pushing on the borders of what might be considered bluegrass music. These were the masters. More importantly, these were Thile's heroes and now he had officially joined their ranks.
Thile has continued to put out interesting solo work, including Deciever in 2004 (as an experiment he plays every instrument on this, a more pop/rock record) and has several duo collaboration records: Two with fellow mandolinist Mike Marshall and one that came out just a few months ago with bassist Edgar Meyer.
This most recent project, however, is the one that I think is game changing. Sometime in 2006 Thile wrangled a new band together. This band, however, was different than previous work. No longer focused on pop music, per say, or carving out musical relationships with the greats, the new project was about reciprocity. Each of the musicians were young players but, like Thile, were on the top of their game with sufficient pluck (pardon the pun) to work and be incredibly successful on their own (the current line-up has Chris Eldridge on guitar, Paul Kowert on bass, Noam Pikelny, banjo and Gabe Witcher on the fiddle). When they got together to record How To Grow A Woman From The Ground (not yet under the Punch Brothers moniker) you can hear things clicking right away. Whether in the opening track "Watch 'at Breakdown" (which launches a Flatt & Skruggs thing into the stratosphere), or "The Beekeeper" (which makes sure it stays in orbit), the record is clearly a demarcation of something great on the rise.
Punch solidifies and reiterates everything I've already been saying. They keep on pushing. In this case, and perhaps the reason I have come back to this record so often, it is the four movement, thirty-six minute, pseudo-classical piece "The Blind Leaving the Blind" (the foray into dealing with the grief of divorce I was talking about). It is a piece to be unraveled. Melodies weave in and out; choruses and musical motifs modulate and recirculate, and the piece -- especially if you see them do it live -- just completely envelopes you. This is smart music, folks. It is music that inspires thinking even as it has you tapping your foot. It not only inspires the listener to keep digging into the bluegrass tradition (as it did me), but makes a trip to see a symphony seem in order. I think this is what Thile intends. He wants us to both have a great time with his music, but learn something from it and be inspired by it.
And if thirty-six minute bluegrass symphonies seem a bit out of your league (despite what I said about accessibility), there's other stuff that might encourage your checking out the band. They love a good cover, for example. How to Grow a Woman has the Strokes' "Heart in a Cage," their Daytrotter session (see below) includes a cover of Wilco's "Poor People," and they are known to close shows with this gem (which features Gabe Witcher on vocals):
If you like that -- you might just like their "Morning Bell" too.
Word is, the Punch Brothers just recorded a new album due out in the Spring. Before then, I really hope you get out to see them.