So you’ve never heard of the Punch Brothers? I’m not too surprised. I stumbled upon them, luckily, at a concert in Charleston, South Carolina, one beautiful night at the Cistern Yard. They’re referred to as “progressive bluegrass” or “newgrass.”
Chris Thile formed the group. You might recognize his name if you remember the acoustic trio Nickel Creek. He’s a mandolin virtuoso, singer, and front man for the Punch Brothers. He’s been playing mandolin since the age of five; he was touring by the age of eight; he released his first solo album at twelve. Finally, in 2006, the Punch Brothers were born, consisting of Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass).
They first got together on the album How to Grow a Woman from the Ground. They continued with Punch in 2008, featuring Thile’s forty minute suite in four movements called “The Blind Leading the Blind” (which I saw them play live in Charleston). In 2010, they released another album, Antifogmatic. And finally, on February 14, 2012, Who’s Feeling Young Now? arrived on my front porch.
As a listener for the past couple years, I have seen the Punch Brothers transform. How to Grow a Woman from the Ground featured traditional bluegrass. Punch moved to something more classical. Antifogmatic was off the beaten path and sometimes too discordant even for me. Who’s Feeling Young Now? might be their masterpiece to date, because it’s a perfect mixture of all their previous styles with a ballsy modern twist.
The opening number, “Movement and Location,” has a fast beat and ghoulish vocals. Thile almost sounds like he’s singing in a cave, and the band intentionally goes off beat in certain segments. The album’s namesake feels angry—the chords, the vocals, and the lyrics—but it is one of the more approachable songs for a Punch Brothers newbie. “Flippen” harkens back to their first album, while “Patchwork Girlfriend” feels reminiscent of Squirrel Nut Zippers.
My favorite tune is “Soon or Never”—the quiet, sad song, featuring the dancing melody of Witcher’s violin. The bonus is a cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” (which I also saw them play in concert), and it’s even better than the original.
A word of warning, however: the Punch Brothers are no longer a bluegrass band, so don’t expect them to be. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I love the way they’ve evolved over the years, and this album in particular shows their development as musicians and as a band. Thile’s voice has never sounded better, and guitarist Eldrige and bassist Kowert have created ingenious ways to make their instruments play percussion. I was most impressed by the violin/fiddle-playing of Witcher. True, I’m partial to violin, but honestly, anyone can admire the guy’s skill on this album, where he seems to be the featured performer.
Maybe that’s what makes this album feel slightly different than the others. In the beginning, it was the name “Chris Thile” that made me want to see the Punch Brothers in Charleston. Now, the band has become a complete entity, with no single performer running the show. They have created a cohesive, unique sound. Will they get radio play this time around? Doubtful. Their music is too interesting for the mass populace. They’ll get plenty of airtime around my house, though, since this might be my new favorite album.