Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Punch Brothers - Antifogmatic

By Jon Stone | @jwstone - June 30, 2010

grass|roots ep. 5

I’m both fascinated and baffled by the Punch Brothers’ refusal to allow the music they make to be classified as bluegrass. I suppose that Chris Thile has been pushing that line since way back in Nickel Creek where the band took more of a “yes, but” approach. And while back then that "but" was aimed at securing Nickel Creek’s success as a pop band that played with traditional bluegrass instruments, Punch Brothers have pushed that same paradigm into as many different genres as to have made, in their eyes, the "but" no longer accurate.

I’m not so sure. To me it seems disingenuous and even slightly contentious to drive that hard line – to insist a separation from a tradition so rich and from one that the players in the band have such strong ties to. I suppose that Punch Brothers are making an important (to them) effort to break free of a tradition, and they must have important reasons for that. In fact, the only thing that allows for a bit of empathy is my own understanding and experience (and difficulty) with academic disciplinarity (I’m a grad student in an English department), which can sometimes feel like over-chaperoned school dance which, as you might imagine, often stifles creativity and "new moves" even as it demands them.

All of this is by way of introduction to Antifogmatic. On the new Punch Brothers record, Thile’s band’s does its best to meet that multi-genred challenge. In doing so the band presents a diverse collection of songs: each crafted with a slightly different aesthetic, but cohesive enough to hang together in surely the most concise and likely the most (commercially) successful Punch Brothers record to date. (I’m including 2006’s How to Grow a Woman From the Ground here. It was a Punch Brothers record even if, as banjoist Noam Pikelny joked during their Bonnaroo set, it was released under a different band name: “Chris Thile”.)

That cohesion is achieved by the band’s devotion to their acoustic instruments. That devotion, though, is also what makes the bluegrass distinction difficult to shake. The record was produced by the multi-talented John Brion (His list of production work is long, but my favorites are his work on Rufus Wainwright's eponymous debut and Fiona Apple's 1999 release When the Pawn...). Brion's goal was to get the sound of the record as close as possible to what he heard when he sat in the middle of the musicians while they played. I think he succeeds as each percussive tap and evocative pluck of the five instruments in play ring through giving the record a sound that highlights both its parts and the sum of those parts.

The concision on Antifogmatic is achieved, most notably, by the absence of a 40-minute, pseudo-classical piece (and in my opinion, masterpiece) that was the last record’s epic “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” The songs are mostly all healthy, four-minute affairs, but Antifogmatic conspicuously leaves the long instrumental (and technically mind-blowing) jams for the deluxe edition.

For me this album is a small step back for fans of the emotional powerhouse that was 2008’s Punch—it doesn’t delve nearly as deep into the depths and gutters of life’s toughest lessons like Punch did. But this, as I mention earlier, is probably the right move for the band to make. I argued in my review of Punch that Punch Brothers managed to be accessible despite their affinity for progressive playing, and while I think that was likely a misplaced argument to be making for that album, it fits perfectly for Antifogmatic. The new record should easily capture the attention of new fans with songs like the opening, Strokes-esque “You Are,” ballads like “Alex” and the barn stomping “Rye Whiskey” (which in recent episode of All Songs Considered, Bob Boilen himself mistook for a standard). Every song on the record is original, every song was written collaboratively, and even though the band gets billed as "Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile" on their current tour, on Antifogmatic, Thile is clearly making room for the rest of the band.

So the question remains, bluegrass or no bluegrass? Well, give a listen to another album standout “Next to the Trash” in which the Punch Brothers move seamlessly (as they so often do) between at least three genres. I think it really just boils down to generational traditions. If you try to lump these guys in comfortably with the last 50 years of bluegrass musicians, you just can't. But for me in 2010, this is how the best bluegrass sounds. This is the future.

Buy: Punch Brotheres - Antifogmatic


I can't resist posting this video of the boys playing "Cry, Cry Darling" with another favorite of mine, Sarah Jarosz, backstage at Bonnaroo. Enjoy.

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