Chris Thile is a freak. The mandolin wizard/former Nickel Creek brainchild/current Punch Brothers leader is a musician of staggering talent, a guy whose Mach-speed brain is worth some serious study. Thile has accumulated every mandolin innovation of the last century, mastered them to boredom, and then blazed enough new innovations with enough incomprehensible skill on the instrument to leave every other eight-stringer clamoring to catch up for decades to come. And he’s still just 30 years old.
On the other hand, some observers have maintained that, while clearly a superpicking genius, Thile is less impressive as a craftsman of strong melodies or as a composer of graceful lyrics. Having long ago perfected traditional bluegrass forms and learned (and bested) every mandolin trick in Sam Bush’s newgrass repertoire, Thile’s own songwriting instincts are all about squirreling his way into the farthest reaches of string-band experimentation, often getting lost in the forest of plinky compositional invention. As a result, Thile produces esoteria like his “Blind Leaving the Blind” suite from 2008’s Punch, a remarkably musical but abstruse series of intricate tinkles and skronks that proved impenetrable to some listeners — easy to admire, impossible to tap a foot to.
Given Thile’s penchant for oddball melodies and prog-grassy tremolo-and-falsetto digressions, the best move Thile has made since dissolving Nickel Creek in 2006 was to become a member of another band, as Thile’s solo album Deceiver from 2004 demonstrated. In Punch Brothers, Thile shares composition and arrangement duties with his band of remarkable flankmen, and while Chris may be the band’s lyricist, he has four skilled editors. In fact, the more collaborative the members of Punch Brothers have grown, the more satisfying the results, as last heard on the group’s terrific sophomore release, 2010’s Antifogmatic.
Indeed, key to Punch Brothers’ success is the kindred musical temperaments and the peerless abilities of these five young bluegrass whizzes. In his many duet configurations — such as last year’s Sleep With One Eye Open, the fierce duets faceoff with guitarist Michael Daves — Thile is forced to show off at all times. But in Punch Brothers, Thile is surrounded by a group of similar aces, including banjo bigwig Noam Pikelny and teflon fiddler Gabe Witcher. Together, along with relatively new bassist Paul Kowert and guitarist and former Infamous Stringduster Chris Eldridge, the PBs have coalesced into an outfit with a unique musical expression and the exclusive ability to play it, resulting in music that sounds wholly their own.
The band’s hit streak continues on the new Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the group’s third album and strongest collection to date. The early buzz was that the album would be a more accessible Punch project, yet Who’s Feeling Young Now? is easily a more expansive and more deviant album than its predecessor. The results are frequently exciting and rewarding, although nothing here is as instantly accessible as Antifogmatic’s “Rye Whiskey” or “Next to the Trash”, songs that at least nodded hard toward traditional bluegrass idioms. Instead, the new record, produced by Jacquire King, goes for broke in the direction of cracked-horizon acoustic experimentation.
“Movement and Location”, for instance, one of a number of new tunes clearly indebted to Radiohead, starts with a rolling banjo figure, played through heavy effects beneath Thile’s chunking mandolin before his languid vocal line floats along with some typically inscrutable lyricism. A second section breaks down into a stutter-stepping rhythm as Pikelny runs through some trademark tremolo drills. Eventually, the song drifts away and threatens to stop altogether but has second thoughts as the arrangement coughs back to life and Witcher’s fiddle wraps sonic strings around the original chord progression, goading the Brothers to lean hard into each other again. Thile’s soaring falsetto is in Yim Yames territory here, and reverb does him some good — the new album marks Thile’s best singing ever.
In fact, the first three songs on the record are all dazzlers. “This Girl” uses a serpentine verse chug that snaps into a whip-smart chorus but one that still refuses your predictions as it roves into harmonies that suggest that these guys got cozy with last year’s Smile box set. “No Concern of Yours” starts as minor-key lament typical of Thile’s instincts for snail-slow melodies, but the mandolin, guitar, and banjo start burbling, slashing, and swirling until the song gives way to what sounds pretty close to bluegrass midway through the song. Not for long, though, and so goes the tension and release patterns throughout the album.
Or check out “Patchwork Girlfriend”, one of the record’s best sonds, a Kurt Weill-style vamp complete with megaphone vocals, clever lyrical twists like “I won’t mess around with other girls unless they’re her”, and a Beatles-esque melody that falls somewhere between Lennon’s “I’m Still Sleeping” with McCartney’s “Honey Pie”.
“No Concern of Yours” is another Thile song about drinking — he has “three or four old-fashioneds”, and it’s been a kick to watch him over the years evolve from the spazzy heartland teen who sang about being a lighthouse into the spazzy Brooklyn metrosexual who sings about drinking whiskey. Antifogmatic was packed with drinking and sex references, and Who’s Feeling Young Now? is likewise brimming with boozy love, whether it’s the backslider praying for romance in “This Girl” or the New York City sap pining for his lover at three in the morning.
At least that’s what he appears to be singing about. After all, there are times when Thile doesn’t give the listener a fighting chance to understand what he’s on about, which is the case on a handful of these songs, including the title cut. “Another thick fog,” Thile sings on the track, which pretty well sums up the evasive poetry that pays plenty of attention to meter and rhythm but proves impossible to explicate. Still, the song is hypnotic, winding through a mini-suite of spidery chord changes and stabbing vocal cadences, as Thile’s mandolin locks into Eldridge’s guitar snaps while Pikenly gambols up and down the fretboard and Witcher parachutes in with drowsy fiddle lines.
Lyrcially, Thile goes to the bullpen on a couple of songs, bringing in Josh Ritter to help streamline Thile’s wayward flights of consciousness. The results are fine: the sinewy “Hundred Dollars”, featuring Witcher’s smirking baritone crossing swords with Thile’s restless tenor, and “New York City”, a humdinger that features a supersonic solo from Pikelny and a barnstorming final minute.
Then again, perhaps the Punch Brothers shine most brightly when they let their spine-curving instrumental genius do the talking. After all, there isn’t another Corolla full of people on the planet who can play like these guys. The two instrumentals on Who’s Feeling Young Now? are also the record’s only covers, and their choices are testaments to the band’s diversity. “Flippen (The Flip)” is a reel from Swedish folkgrass outfit Väsen. Thile’s mandolin takes over in the opening (for Väsen’s fiddle-based original) and proves again that no other mandolinist combines such blazing speed with such an impossibly delicate touch. Covering Radiohead is one of Punch Brothers’ favorite challenges, and here they offer a take on “Kid A”. Thile’s whirling dervish rhythm chops mimic the ticky syncopated beats, and the band likewise captures the plinky, icy tone of the original on one of the new record’s most impressive feats.
The record ends with “Don’t Get Married Without Me”, which sounds closest to what has become the signature Punch Brothers sound in 2012. The instrumentation runs the course from classical to ragtime to bop to avant-grass, providing a zig-zag backdrop to a rugged verse that melds into a dreamy, falsetto-abetted chorus showcasing high-and-tight harmonies. Thile offers up more batshit lyricism, but it’s nostalgic and romantic batshit. In fact, if you don’t like “Don’t Get Married Without Me”, Punch Brothers might not be your bag. On the other hand, if you are interested in modern acoustic music at its most dynamic, passionate, progressive, and deftly played, Who’s Feeling Young Now? is an essential document and a mesmerizing step forward.