You've got to admire a crew that aspires to be a string-band version of Radiohead. Mandolin shredder Chris Thile and his mates make that notion explicit on their third LP with a dumbfounding cover of "Kid A," the digital bloops and bleeps of the original translated into fiddle abstractions and clipped banjo chatter. Unlike the 40-minute-plus suite that filled out the group's 2008 debut, the songs here want to be songs, and instrumentals are mostly held at bay.
If vocalist-mandolinist Chris Thile and his merry band of prog-grass virtuosos decided to record an album crammed with foot-stompin’ breakneck noodling, I’d be first in line to carry their cases to the studio and re-string their gear. But on the band’s third (and unquestionably finest) album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the multi-talented quintet wisely continue doing what they do best: crafting off-kilter, classically-tinged pop songs that sound like absolutely no other band on the planet. Though every individual member clearly has the ability to rip into a tasty, long-winded solo at any given moment, Punch Brothers consistently choose the higher path—each instrument plays off its neighbor, Gabe Witcher’s radiant violin charging sparks off Noam Pikelny’s fluid banjo pokes.
Chris Thile’s virtuosity as a singer and a mandolin player should surprise no one by now. Nor should his ambition and adventurous spirit. Since leaving the smoother, poppier confines of Nickel Creek in 2007, he has been prolific, almost restless, releasing solo albums and collaborations that stretched his limits as a singer, songwriter, and picker.
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.
Last month, this outrageously virtuosic and experimental bluegrass-pop-jazz band from New York turned up at a small London venue and gave what will surely be one of the most memorable concerts of the year. Now the five-piece Punch Brothers are back with their third album, which doesn't match the furious energy of their live performances, largely because they shy away from straightforward folk songs such as the stomping Rye Whiskey. But it does show why they are so special.
The third outing from the Punch Brothers picks up right where 2010's Antifogmatic left off, offering up another quality set of offbeat sophisti-grass that blends the whirlwind musicianship of Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, the spirited delivery of the Louvin Brothers, and the cinematic urban melancholy of Jeff Buckley into a sometimes impenetrable but always fascinating (check out the detailed cover of the instrumental title cut from Radiohead's Kid A) new take on new acoustic. On the delightfully weird Who's Feeling Young Now?, the truest moments are provided by virtuoso mandolinist/vocalist Chris Thile's expressive, measured voice and deeply personal lyrics. In anyone else's hands, densely layered, ultra-mercurial songs like "Movement and Location," "No Concern of Yours," "Clara," and "Don’t Get Married Without Me" would fly right out the window and disappear into the night sky, but for every acrobatic run, music-nerd time signature, or dissonant key change, there's a moment of unbridled, emotional connection to remind us that there is a very thin line between showboating and heartache.
New York's Punch Brothers are a niche interest that is rapidly growing; their blend of Americana and bluegrass, stretched across jazz time signatures and spliced with elements of funk and rock, won them Grammy nominations in 2010. This is no barrier to boredom though, and the band's twinkle-toed banjo runs and acoustic duelling fall flat here, hobbled by dreary songwriting. "This Girl" and "Hundred Dollars" are cases in point, lumpen drivetime fare with only a hint of bluegrass zip.
The Punch Brothers continue to sport a classic bluegrass instrumental lineup on their third album, "Who's Feeling Young Now?,'' and that continues to be about as close to bluegrass as they get. Elements of that music, typically in a progressive vein, do show up occasionally, and the band sounds almost conventionally so on, of all things, a cover of a polska by Swedish group Väsen. Elsewhere, though, their affinity for piling in rock, jazz, pop, and classical sounds and for simultaneously obscure and smile-inducing lyrics (the tongue-in-cheek irreverence of “This Girl,’’ for example) is still unabated.
‘Aimer et Perdre: To Love & To Lose Songs, 1917-1934’. Arriving right on time for Valentine’s Day this two-disc compilation on the Tompkins Square label presents a bittersweet bouquet of love songs, without looking in the usual places or yielding the usual results. It’s a sampling of ….
Chris Thile, 31, deserves every musical accolade that has and will come his way. An exceptional mandolinist and brilliant composer, his Punch Brothers supergroup marveled with 2008 debut Punch and garnered Grammy nominations for 2010's Antifogmatic. As the experimental turns of its progressive strings have become hallmark, however, Thile's deficiency as songwriter has begun to bleed through, and the quintet's third album quickly wears thin.