Americans are sick, the Punch Brothers tell us on their fourth studio album. But our mutual affliction isn’t the viral kind—at least not in the traditional sense. “Your trouble vibrates the table,” sings mandolinist Chris Thile, backed by a sprightly churn of banjo, fiddle and upright bass. “There’s nothin’ to say / that couldn’t just as well be sent / I’ve got an American share / of 21st century stress.” Over the past nine years, Punch Brothers have helped popularize “prog-grass”—a forward-thinking movement that utilizes traditional bluegrass instrumentation while weaving in elements of classical, alternative rock, jazz and even mainstream pop.
The Phosphorescent Blues is a wildly varied album that finds Punch Brothers once again pushing their classic string band/bluegrass instrumentation into weird musical arenas far outside what’s typical for this sort of lineup. In other words, it’s full of delightfully unexpected ideas, which is exactly what’s become expected them. “Familiarity” opens the album with a ten-plus minute epic that finds the band in a similar milieu as “Movement and Location”, the opener of their previous album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? There’s a lot of speedy banjo and mandolin picking as part of an esoteric arrangement that has more in common with 20th century art music than anything in the bluegrass, country, rock, or pop annals.
Never ones to shy away from complexity, the Punch Brothers throw all caution to the wind on The Phosphorescent Blues. Aided by producer T-Bone Burnett -- that auteur of Americana acoustica, who previously worked with the band on his soundtrack for the Coen brothers' folkie saga Inside Llewyn Davis -- the Punch Brothers indulge themselves in impressionism on their fourth full-length, having the guts to open with a ten-minute suite that plays a bit like the fourth side of a double-vinyl from 1971. It also performs a nifty trick of sorting out the true believers.
Who starts an album with a ten-minute piece bordering on the rock-operatic, follows it with pop rock ballads and a bluegrass number and throws in a little Debussy for good measure? Punch Brothers do. With The Phosphorescent Blues, they show once again that they are just about the boldest and most versatile acoustic bands around. Guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert and fiddler Gabe Witcher deliver flawless performances here.
Punch Brothers are brilliant musicians, but their new album is a little too clever. They have always been ridiculously eclectic: in a memorable concert at London’s Bush Hall three years ago, they switched between bluegrass and acoustic pop – including songs by Radiohead and Dominic Behan – and mandolin virtuoso and singer Chris Thile recently recorded a solo set that included Bach sonatas, so it’s no surprise this album is adventurous. It includes pieces by Debussy and Scriabin, finely played on mandolin, fiddle, banjo and guitar, while 10-and-a-half-minute opener Familiarity is a pained and thoughtful song with constant musical and emotional mood changes and echoes of Beach Boys harmonies.
The first half of 2015 was a slightly strange moment for country, especially chart country, because it mostly made for some serious waiting. Though there have been significant releases, the biggest names will either return later in the year, or remain sleeping off their collective residual hangover from 2014. We’re still waiting for Billy Currington’s Drinkin’ Town With a Football Problem, teenage sensation Hunter Hayes’ 21, Kip Moore’s delayed sophomore release Wild Ones and a new album proper from Luke Bryan.