The Phosphorescent Blues Continued
To say the Punch Brothers are eclectic is like saying the sky is blue or and the grass is green, or because they are a bluegrass-style act, maybe because the sky is green?! Yes, something is definitely twisted about the five-piece band. While the excellent instrumental chops of Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass) is beyond dispute, and each member of the quintet contributes nicely to the vocals and vocal harmonies, the Punch Brothers are not content to play the music straight.
This is just as true today as it was when the group began back in 2007. The Punch Brothers’ latest EP, The Wireless is really just a continuation of their last album, the T-Bone Burnett produced The Phosphorescent Blues. In fact three of the cuts on the EP appeared on the vinyl version of The Phosphorescent Blues. It’s odd that all five of these tracks did not appear on the original disc as they were recorded during the same sessions. The Phosphorescent Blues was far from thematically tight, and while the music on this EP may be outlandish, it is no more unusual than their normal productions.
The five songs reveal the instrumentalists ability to pick and strum clean and fast. They don’t jam together as much as they use each other’s riffs and runs as catalysts for their own. Despite the importance of traditional rural music on their playing, this album would not appeal to a typical roots or Americana fan. The compositions are much too avant-garde and would be more at home in a Brooklyn loft than a Tennessee hoedown.
Consider the driving instrumental “The Hops of Guldenberg” that contains everything from Stephane Grappelli style fiddle playing, Appalachian mandolin melodies, swinging banjo tunings, and an immaculately picked guitar strings over a throbbing bass beat for almost five minutes of experimentation. The song is always going somewhere, but the listener has no evidence to figure out where the tune is going next. The players themselves switch styles and genres so just when one thinks one has it sussed, surprise! Something else happens—and it may not always be in key or even performed straight. The quintet have an odd sense of humor and often just take off or stop playing when it suits them.
And then there’s the curious “Sleek White Baby”, which features Ed Helms as modern day snake oil salesman hawking the answer to life’s problems in the form of product that bears a resemblance to an iPhone or iPad. Helms’s carnival barking suggests that we’ve always been gullible for a good line. Step right up!
The one non-original track features the Punch Brothers covering Elliott Smith’s “Clementine”. Smith performed the sot’s lament soft and sweet—he’s the man on the barstool listening to the bartender sing to himself as he closes shop, and the sad drunk walks out of the tavern reminded of the love he has lost. The Punch Brothers’ version makes the narrator into more of a mess. Smith is a romantic who sees himself as the drinker. The Punch Brothers are realists—or maybe surrealists, as they capture the drunkard’s sloppy narcissistic dreams with an outsider’s view.
The Wireless probably won’t gain the quintet many new fans. But it’s a worthy addition to the catalogue for those who like their music weird and impeccably performed on acoustic stringed instruments.
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