Bluegrass is not kids’ play—never has been. Hard to play and sing, dealing with dire subjects, requiring ensemble interplay of the highest order, this music is serious. But as in so many other arts, masters of the form made the difficult seem effortless. From Bill Monroe to Nickel Creek, great bluegrass bands seemed to draw joy from the musical tightrope walking.
And, trick of tricks, folks like Bill Monroe and Nickel Creek even made this complex music popular.
Nickel Creek, the most accessible and charming of the “newgrass” bands of the last couple decades, was largely fronted by the mandolin prodigy and all-grown-up singer/composer Chris Thile. In this cooperative band (with guitarist Sean Watkins and fiddler Sara Watkins), Chris was the truly outsized talent—a player of such searing invention that he moved easily from jazz forays to classical crossover, and a singer who could pull a trace of Sam Cooke from the shadow of Ralph Stanley. Plus, the guy is good-looking and, on stage, pretty much rocks. When Nickel Creek disbanded for a while to allow for “solo projects”, Thile already had a dozen directions ripe for exploring.
His main avenue since then has been Punch Brothers, another cooperative band that includes four other stunning young players: guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and fiddler Gabe Witcher. Thile is the lead vocalist, but all the compositions on Antifogmatic, the band’s second Nonesuch disc, were written cooperatively. And the playing is of a dramatic whole.
The music of Punch Brothers is only superficially similar to that of Nickel Creek, despite the Thile leads and the string band instrumentation. Where Nickel Creek made it all look easy, Punch Brothers make it quite clear that they are doing something tricky. Rather than expressing an ineffable joy, the music on Antifogmatic glows with a knotty complexity. If David Foster Wallace had played bluegrass instead of written novels, well, Infinite Jest might be Antifogmatic.
And this is neither wonderful nor terrible. Or it’s both.
Antifogmatic is an intricate and thrilling act of classical (not classic) bluegrass. While there are sections of songs that get into the groove like a vintage example of the form, there are many more sections where the band delves into gypsy jazz harmony (“Don’t Need No”), or classical semi-tonality (“Me and Us”), or the complex melodic shapes expected of Gershwin or Brian Wilson (“Welcome Home”). Each song feels like a brilliantly conceived suite rather than a catchy verse-chorus structure. This is smart bluegrass or, better yet, just smart music.
At its best, Antifogmatic is a revelation, pushing way past the barriers of what you thought bluegrass could be. Nickel Creek made the form seem wholly integrated with smart pop forms, but Punch Brothers bring bluegrass textures to an even wider range of forms. “Alex”, for example, merges a gently dancing ballad to a rocking chorus that is supported by a pulsating string quartet sound. “Missy” uses throwback diction (“Get thee behind me”), beautifully written counterpoint for bass and violin, unusual harmony, and a truly thrilling fiddle solo to tell a story about a questionable, enticing lady.
The fun here is in the surprises. “Next to the Trash” sounds like it’s going to reach out as an old-timey waltz… and then it charges ahead into a section of urgent 8/8 time. The opener, “You Are”, comes close to being a hooky pop song, with a super-singable melody and a strong backbeat for 90 seconds, before the groove melts away into a subtle chamber pop middle section. “Rye Whiskey” starts as a true fiddle breakdown tune, but it also moves into a coolly different bridge that returns to the main melody in a tightly controlled mode.
As clever as all this music is, it’s hard to listen to Antifogmatic and not wish that it just breathed a bit more. The songs are jam-packed with turns and references, cleverness and fancy footwork. It is, truly, postmodern bluegrass—keenly self-conscious of its own brilliance. Indeed, there is even a flatly self-conscious song called “This Is the Song” that tells a personal story by talking about itself. With a band this powerful and fine, you wish that the gents would just PICK for a while, just allow themselves to blow it out, to let it fly.
(Side note: Both Punch Brothers recordings are on Nonesuch, the smarty-pants-iest of all record labels, the place where the Kronos Quartet, Wilco, Bill Frisell, and Emmylou Harris come together. I love so many of these recordings and so many of these artists, but it would be hard to deny that Nonesuch is where diverse artists come to make their most pretentious music.)
But cutting loose is not the mission of Antifogmatic, a word, by the way, from the nineteenth century, meaning an alcoholic drink that one might imbibe for medicinal purposes. This music, rich and fascinating, dense and delirious with intensity, is good for you. That it advertises its own daring play with its form may nor may not beguile you, but who cares? Chris Thile and company are masters on the make. Drink up.