REVIEW: The Punch Brothers - "Who's Feeling Young Now"

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Punch Brothers - Who's Feeling Young Now?
Record Label:  Nonesuch
Release Date:  Feb. 14, 2012

The Punch Brothers are undergoing a permanent identity crisis.  While the Charlottesville quintet looks like a bluegrass outfit, plays the instruments of a bluegrass band, and refers to one another as "boys" (see:  "Me and the boys..."), they are not a bluegrass band--or at least not how you think of a bluegrass band.  Those who have been with the group for a while will recognize this right off the bat as their first album included a 40 minute track, divided into movements.  Not your normal act for even the most high-falutin' of bluegrass groups.  And, by the bands own admission the instruments they're dealing with here just happen to be what they play best.  Sure they look like a bluegrass band, but that just gets them to the music that they want to play.

Who's Feeling Young Now? the group's third album is also their best.  Bandleader Chris Thile made his mark on country and Nu-grass with Nickle Creek, a group that had the audacity to break into Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and did one of the greatest Pavement covers of all time hasn't so much opened the group up on WFYN? as he has pared it away exchanging the ambling musicality of their first album with a tight song structure inspired and drawing from the musicality of the band.  "Movement and Location" the albums opener and an homage to former Brave great Greg Maddox is a burner.  Thile's  mandolin races along as Gabe Witcher's fiddle soars above.  There's also the off kilter "Kid A" cover which throws back to Thile's past and shows how demanding that song really is when pulled off by a top notch outfit juxtaposing rhythms against one another over and over and over.

As a Kentuckian, I grew up close to bluegrass, developing an affinity and mistrust of it.  For so many of us these past years with the rise of the Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers, Felice Brothers, and other groups (that don't have the name brothers) have been oddly reinvigorating.  Because, let's face it, you first image of a bluegrass fan or band is caught somewhere down in the south, sharecropping, rolling around in fried shrimp on their way to the NASCAR track.  It's inseparable from the Deliverance theme.  If you don't at least acknowledge this, you're lying (at least a little bit) to yourself.  So, for those of us who have achieved some sort of musical self-knowledge, bluegrass remains this sort of thing that you respect and fear.  Why do you fear it?  Because you know it's down there somewhere deep in your bones.  You know that you can't move without it.  But it's not sophisticated.  It's not "interesting."  Outside of the hills and the hollers and the people that are from there you hear it called "hillbilly music" because most don't respect it. Why do you respect it?  Because it's the sort of thing that has "tradition:"  The innovation of Bill Monroe, the voice of Ralph Stanley, the history.  But, let's face it.  It's a history that is largely dead, no matter how many times your parents spin the O Brother! soundtrack.  And this in itself has become a kind of kitsch and cultural tourism.  "Oh, I know that, I've seen that movie.  Let's listen to Vampire Weekend!" Despite all this, bluegrass keeps trying to push its head back up:  Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, Jolie Holland and the Be Good Tanyas.  It keeps coming in waves.  

Who's Feeling Young Now? may be the crest of the latest one.  But, I think we'd all like to see it moving up.  Not only with the Punch Brothers but with other groups as well.  How long has it been since the last Old Crow Medicine Show record?  Why can't we build on success the way indie rock had a flowering, like hip-hop, or psych.  To do that would be to change the music.  Punch Brothers are cruelly aware of that here.  Their progression is as much musical as it is how they are thinking about an album, using experimentation and studio processes.  Bluegrass, like the blues (its ancestral cousin), needs to be lived  that is out loud and live.  Spinning and streaming are only imitations.  What the Punch Brothers are able to do here is incredible not only for the band but for the form as it stays rooted in the early 20th century and groups keep trying to push it forward.  

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. Just caught a free show in Chicago, and was amazed at the musicianship. That alone speaks well for the genre; that players this good love this music. Keep it coming, I say.