Punch Brothers continue taking bluegrass into uncharted territories with their new album, The Phosphorescent Blues. Since 2008, Chris Thile and the boys have consistently released solid, impressive and highly ambitious full-length albums, as well as an EP titled Ahoy in 2012. Their fourth full-length studio release, The Phosphorescent Blues, raises the bar even higher for this group, with its seemingly never-ending depth and creative musicianship. With quick changes, twisted tunings and complex time signatures, Punch Brothers provide listeners with a mind-bending rollercoaster ride of intricate instrumentation that is among the greatest of its genre.
This new impressive studio effort, produced by award winning musician, songwriter and producer T Bone Burnett, is the first of the Punch Brothers’ albums to feature drums. New band member, Jay Bellerose (drums) joins Chris Thile (mandolin, vocals), Gabe Witcher (fiddle, vocals), Noam Pikenly of Leftover Salmon (banjo, vocals), Chris Eldridge of The Infamous Stringdusters (guitar, vocals) and Paul Kowert (bass, vocals) on Punch Brothers’ ambitious fourth album. Bellerose’s arrival is warmly welcomed, as the new percussion fits perfectly into the ever-changing development of the band’s sound and artistic direction. The Phosphorescent Blues is chock-full of savory sounds and colorful musical landscapes that any music lover would enjoy diving into head-first.
The cover artwork showing two hooded people kissing is a 1928 painting by Rene Magritte. It is symbolic of the subject matter within the album itself. The overall theme seems to be, as Chris Thile puts it on Punch Brothers’ website, “connection, particularly in a world where it’s pretty easy to take being connected for granted.” It’s a deep subject that is matched equally by the depth of the songs on the record.
“Familiarity,” the album’s opening track, trickles in like a gentle river and ends like a raging waterfall. With quick changes, unexpected turns and Beach Boys-esque harmonies, this epic 10-minute journey through sound sets the tone. It demands your attention as your ears beg for more. From the gentle beginning to the exhilarating finish and everything in between, this first song offers all the colors and shapes that make Punch Brothers the force of nature that they are.
The album’s lead single, “Julep,” is a more focused and concise composition compared to much of the Punch Brothers catalog. However, there is never a time when a simple, catchy melody doesn’t make a sudden left-turn into a whirlwind of crafty musicianship. Once again, the band shows their chops and proves to the listener that they are indeed seasoned pros and demonstrate it more and more with each song that passes.
Track three, “Passepied (Debussy)” is a modern classical instrumental piece. Within those three-plus minutes is a complex mega storm of world class instrumentation. The strings dance around one another with such grace and precision. Some of the smartest musicianship you’ll hear this year. I guarantee it.
Without slowing down, “I Blew It Off,” the second single from The Phosphorescent Blues, is a much more mainstream sound than one is used to hearing from Punch Brothers. Nevertheless, this radio-friendly toe-tapper is quite the memorable song. One I’m sure that will become a very popular hit just in time for the kids to dance their butts off to this year during the upcoming summer festivals. Punch Brothers will be returning to Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee this year, as well as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colorado.
Moving on, the fifth song on the album, “Magnet” is once again another departure from the usual sound of Punch Brothers. It’s a funky, fast-paced, bass-and-drum stomper that makes you want to get up and dance. With rapid-fire vocals and mind-bending mandolin playing, it is one hell of an impressive track.
“My oh my, what a wonderful day we’re having,” sings Thile in “My Oh My,” the sixth song from this most impressive record, and I couldn’t agree more. From one track to the next, this album is musicianship at its finest and demonstrates the sheer musical power behind Punch Brothers. No filler here. With irresistible hooks and lyrical themes of inspiration and collective change for the better, this is yet another standout track from The Phosphorescent Blues.
Continuing with a persistent onslaught of perfection, is “Boll Weevil.” Their own spin on the old traditional blues song made famous by Leadbelly, about the pesky little beetle that feasts upon the cotton plants of farmers, is yet another undeniably loveable and catchy tune. This song swings us back into the deep bluegrass roots that Punch Brothers were founded upon.
“Prelude (Scriabin)” is another short classical instrumental piece and serves as a perfect and seamless transition into the ninth track, “Forgotten,” which swoops in with a far darker tone and deeper, more dramatic lyricism. It takes us through peaks and valleys of love and emotion and eventually ends with a beautiful line of hope and inspiration, “It’s all going to be fine, you ain’t gonna die alone, you ain’t gonna be forgotten.”
“I never dwelled on leaving, only getting somewhere,” sings a lone, soft-voiced Chris Thile at the start of the album‘s tenth song, “Between First and A.” Beginning quietly and gradually transitioning into a bright and cheerful verse and chorus, this song swells and falls, twisting us through beautifully haunting soundscapes that could only come from this group of extraordinarily gifted musicians. It is an exciting new direction for Punch Brothers and exclusive to The Phosphorescent Blues. Which brings us to the final song, “Little Lights,“ the quietest track on the record. Yet a magnificently crafted finale to an epic record. The song peaks with an angelic chorus of voices that rises like a massive tidal wave and dissipates as quickly as it appeared. Thile’s gentle strum of the mandolin sends us peacefully back home. Then suddenly, it’s over.
The Phosphorescent Blues proves to be a polished, new shade to the band’s already colorful repertoire; a fresh sound that is no doubt, in part, thanks to the album’s producer, T Bone Burnett. “We were overjoyed when he agreed to produce The Phosphorescent Blues,” says Thile on the band’s website, “and have benefited mightily from his steady guidance and support throughout.”
Punch Brothers are also releasing an exclusive 180g double vinyl version of The Phosphorescent Blues, with four bonus tracks. The Brothers begin their tour in February, starting in Ireland and the UK and then continuing with a lengthy US tour. If Punch Brothers happen to stop by your neck of the woods, do yourself a favor and don’t miss out on these living legends of progressive bluegrass. Thank me later.
By Joseph Conlon