Review: Punch Brothers – Punch

Punch Brothers, formerly the Tensions Mountain Boys, formerly the How to Grow a Band, release their debut album this month. Actually, it’s their second album.

As you can see, this band is nothing if not confusing, and it doesn’t get any clearer when you hear their music. This CD, Punch, is a collection of four tracks bundled together with the 42-minute long suite The Blind Leaving the Blind. It’s bluegrass, jazz, classical and more and it certainly takes some listening.

The band is the latest project from mandolin master Chris Thile who is joined by fellow world-class musicians Noam Pikelny (banjo), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Greg Garrison (bass). The group recorded and released How to Grow a Woman from the Ground back in 2006, though the work was credited to Thile. It was his fifth solo album but the first hint that he was ready to move on from Nickel Creek, the band he had been part of since childhood.

Thile is definitely making a clean break from Nickel Creek. Although experimental at times, they were very much a verse-chorus-verse kind of band and Punch Brothers are venturing out into new, unchartered territory. It is something that Thile is more than pleased about, saying “I can’t imagine being more excited about a project than I am about Punch Brothers. The possibilities are endless with these guys!”

The thing that really separates this band from Thile’s previous work is that it truly is a band. Anybody who saw Nickel Creek live would have got the sense of it being “The Chris Thile Show” with support from the Watkins siblings. But here, with a group of musicians that could all be called virtuosos in their own right, Thile cannot steal the limelight. Punch Brothers are a cohesive unit with no one musician standing above the others. Thile cannot even claim front man rights now, as Noam Pikelny shares these duties (in a hilarious, if somewhat bizarre, dry-witted way) during live shows.

So what of the music? Well, don’t worry if you can’t absorb it on first listen. The four movements of The Blind Leaving The Blind are the main focus of the album and offer a layered, complex and often confusing musical journey. Multiple time and key signatures, varying tempos and volumes and sudden changes in melody mean that even after five or six listens you’ll still think you’re never going to get it. But as it starts to sink in, it also starts to make sense. Each of the movements has a strong, individual theme and whilst the music may seem to wander from time to time, the musicians and their instruments have a well-defined role throughout the piece. As Thile explains, “I had this idea of a long-form composition that was grounded in folk music. Though much of it reads like a string quintet, there are parts that read like a jazz lead sheet. There is plenty of improvising and lots of stuff that is loosely dictated.”

The rest of the recording is comprised of four tracks co-written by all the band members. They may be shorter and more conventional than the record’s centre-piece, but if you think they might be easier to digest, think again. Sometimes is a twisty instrumental that follows TBLTB and it is easily mistaken for the composition’s fifth movement. The opening track Punchbowl is just as intricate, with a melody that almost sounds out of tune and a structure that doesn’t follow any rules. Those who loved The Beekeeper and Watch ‘at Breakdown on the last CD will lap this stuff up.

Getting to know and understand this recording is hard work, but it is more than worth the effort. If Punch gets the success and following it deserves, it could easily become a landmark moment in the continuing evolution of bluegrass and new acoustic music.

The only question is, what on earth are Punch Brothers going to do next?

Further information

For more info about Punch Brothers, visit their official website. To find out how the band came together read our interview with Noam Pikelny.