The Punch Brothers
The Phosphorescent Blues
Nonesuch Records, 546377-2, (2015)
CD Review by Hermon Joyner
From the opening flurry of rising and falling notes, you know you’re in for something special with The Phosphorescent Blues. It’s hard to imagine a more technically accomplished group of musicians than we have with the Punch Brothers. Seemingly, they can realize in performance anything their considerable imaginations can conjure up, and their only limit is that imagination. As long as they continue to collaborate as a group, they will constantly stretch the boundaries of musical performance as they expand what it means to be a string band in the 21st Century. So, even though they use the instrumentation of the traditional bluegrass ensemble, they can in no way be considered a bluegrass band. They are much more than that.
Because of the backgrounds of the musicians here—Chris Thile on mandolin and lead vocals, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Paul Kowart on bass, and Gabe Witcher of fiddle—most people unfamiliar with the Punch Brothers might expect bluegrass music from them, but once you divest yourself of those expectations and approach them and their music with open minds, you can see the beauty of what they have created. From sources as diverse as art songs and tone poems, jazz and pop, classical and bluegrass, the Punch Brothers are able to create their own unique sound, and their playing is of the highest possible level, and the emphasis is on songs here. Probably the most ambitious is the opening track, Familiarity, which clocks in at more than 10 minutes long and is divided into three sections. The music is complex and sublime, and the song speaks of how the life of a musician swings back and forth between isolation and intimate connection.
If there is a connecting theme in this record, it’s that it seems to be a reflection of the internal struggles experienced by Chris Thile and the rest of the band. And if I had to generalize about Thile’s solo efforts—and to me, the Punch Brothers are Thile’s way of working out his own definition of what music is for him—his personal projects tend towards being more intellectually oriented, rather than being heart-felt and emotive. This record, however, achieves a better, nearly perfect, balance between those two extremes, and because of that, this is my favorite Punch Brothers recording.
The Phosphorescent Blues marks their first collaboration with renowned record producer T Bone Burnett, who put together the soundtracks for movies like O Bother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis, and has produced albums for Elvis Costello, Elton John, Diana Krall, and Steve Earle. Burnett was also produced the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album, Raising Sand. So when I heard he was working with the Punch Brothers on this album, my hopes were raised. It’s difficult to say if he is responsible for the emotional resonance found here, but he must have had some impact for the better.
So, even though this is only January, I have the feeling that The Phosphorescent Blues will be one of the best recordings to come out this year. Multiple listenings continue to reveal greater depths and subtleties, and I know I’ll be keeping this close to hand throughout the year. The Phosphorescent Blues is a recording from an exceptional group at the top of their game. This album should not be missed.
Track List: Familiarity; Julep; Passepied (Debussy); I Blew It Off; Magnet; My Oh My; Boll Weevil; Prelude (Scriabin); Forgotten; Between 1st and A; Little Lights.