Despite being one of the pre-eminent banjo players of the day, Noam Pikelny proves on his fourth solo LP Universal Favorite that even an established musician still has to put himself out there.
As a solo artist and as the banjo picker for the progressive bluegrass outfit Punch Brothers, Noam Pikelny has established a reputation for banjo wizardry. To this date, I have yet to hear a banjo solo like the one toward the end of the first movement of Punch Brothers' The Blind Leaving the Blind, which manages to balance breathtaking speed with crystal clear melodic articulation. Finger-style banjo playing invites speed demons, but "Dragonforce meets the banjo" is a style to which the world will hopefully never be subjected. Pikelny is a rare case of virtuosity not overcoming songwriting, which has led to a host of accolades, including the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
In a promotional video for his fourth solo LP, the humbly named Universal Favorite, Pikelny parodies the notion of "banjo fame," delivered in a bass-voiced monotone. If there was any money to be made in bluegrass-based TV shows, he could undoubtedly pitch a Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque deadpan comedy about the life of a banjo player. "I bought one of Earl Scruggs' boots," Pikelny says after highlighting the Steve Martin Prize, "Just to drink champagne out of it." After going through an absurd list of ideas for what would become Universal Favorite -- including the brilliant "Re-release sex tape on vinyl?" – Pikelny comes to the humblebrag realization: all a great record needs is himself.
This philosophy, comically expressed in the promotional video above, is the grounding for Universal Favorite, which features Pikelny performing 12 songs without any accompaniment. These 12 tunes primarily involve Pikelny's voice and banjo, although two tracks ("My Tears Don't Show" and "Sweet Sunny South") demonstrate Pikelny's heretofore unadvertised skill as a guitar picker. Produced by Pikelny's fellow Punch Brother Gabe Witcher, Universal Favorite finds Pikelny putting the spotlight on himself and himself alone. The result is an album that, for all of the parodic tones of its promotional video, is a genuine statement of intent. Universal Favorite is a unique statement of this kind: rather than adorning these songs with grandiose arrangements, Pikelny strips everything back, letting himself speak clearly even as he does so unassumingly.
As any review of a Pikelny performance (whether on an album or in a live setting) will attest, the banjo playing on Universal Favorite is unassailable. Dreamy opener "Waveland" commences the LP with a kind of etude for the banjo, with ascending and descending chord figures being given a flutter-fingered treatment by Pikelny. Stark instrumental pieces like "Sugar Maple" and the gorgeous "Great Falls" showcase Pikelny's instrument of choice beautifully, with Witcher's fine production letting every note ring with a crystalline quality. The sui generis sound of the banjo likely results in many writing it off as a genre-bound instrument, limited at most to bluegrass, folk, and certain sub-styles of jazz. If nothing else, Universal Favorite testifies to the value of the banjo as an instrument just like any other, one capable of speaking to numerous musical voices not in spite of but because of its one-of-a-kind voice. The nimble-fingered "Hen of the Woods" has echoes of a classical partita; "Moretown Hop" is ripe for piano accompaniment.
Pikelny's ability to let the banjo speak to wide audiences was well established prior to Universal Favorite. As a member of the Punch Brothers, Pikelny has shown the banjo's capacity to bolster songs by the Strokes, Radiohead, and even Mclusky. Universal Favorite's further evinces Pikelny's talents, but for the most part, it highlights things about him that fans and followers undoubtedly already know. Where Universal Favorite breaks the newest ground for Pikelny is in his unaccompanied vocal performances throughout, on traditional songs like "Old Banjo" and "Sweet Sunny South, and covers like Josh Ritter's "Folk Bloodbath" and Carl Butler's "My Tears Don't Show".
Pikelny's decision to sing multiple times on Universal Favorite brings to mind another one of his comic performances, this one for a 2011 Funny or Die video called "Bluegrass Diva", where Pikelny stars alongside Steve Martin and Ed Helms. The humor of the video centers on Pikelny's supposed inability to hold a tune when he sings; despite his speaking voice being of low register, he strains his singing into a painful attempt at a tenor. ("Here comes this bullshit," comedian Matt Walsh says just before Pikelny starts recording his vocals.) Of course, the video is anything but an accurate capture of Pikelny's singing; on Punch Brothers tunes like "Don't Need No" and "Familiarity", Pikelny plays the role of baritone to bandmates' Witcher, Chris Thile, and Chris Eldrige's tenors. Never has Pikelny taken up the role of lead vocals, however, and on Universal Favorite he gets his shot.
On "Old Banjo", Pikelny's deep pipes finely accompany the traditional. It's easy to imagine Pikelny in a straw hat on a porch somewhere, singing and picking. From then on out, the singing becomes far less interesting than the instrumental. Pikelny's banjo arrangement for Ritter's "Folk Bloodbath" is a simple yet beautiful accompany to the music, but Pikelny's rather plain voice fails to provide the emotional range necessary to effectively differentiate the main refrain ("And the angels / Laid them away"). In Pikelny's version, "Folk Bloodbath" sounds quite like a deadpan parody of the traditional murder ballad for how the monotone vocals describe the ever-increasing body count. Country numbers like "My Tears Don't Show" and "Sweet Sunny South" are straightforward enough that Pikelny's voice blends in with ease, but overall his singing – while not anywhere near as comically bad as the Funny or Die performance lets on – is not of the same caliber as his banjo (and even guitar) playing.
Even in its simplicity, Universal Favorite shows numerous sides of Noam Pikelny, and in that way, it is very much the solo album he describes in the dry humor of its promotional video. Previous solo LPs of Pikelny's, like Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail and the excellent Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, didn't stifle his voice, but they did frame it within certain parameters. Universal Favorite is wise to strip back all but Pikelny himself. This "boiling things down to their essence" approach favors some parts of Pikelny's musical skill more than others, meaning that the instrumentals far outshine the vocal numbers. Even when some parts of the music ring flat, Universal Favorite reveals something refreshing and unusual about an artist of Pikelny's standing: even if you're a seasoned performer with an established reputation, you still have to put yourself out there.