Punch Brothers may have once defined themselves as ‘aesthetically a bluegrass band’, but really they are a group that refuses to recognise boundaries or classifications. Their one consistent aim, from the four part suite The Blind Leading The Blind right through to this new album has been to demonstrate a wide spectrum of possibility for a purely acoustic unit.
To this end, they have played highly incongruous shows – large outdoor rock festivals, for example, have been directly inspired by electronic music (including an almost note for note cover of Radiohead’s Kid A), have interpreted classical compositions and have been one of the most percussive units at work without employing the services of a drummer (until now that is). This is quite a list of achievements.
The band’s nominal leader (although this belies its nature as a highly collaborative project) is virtuoso mandolin player, vocalist and former Nickel Creek member Chris Thile. Thile has worked in a wide variety of contexts, including improvising with Brad Mehldau or Edgar Meyer, and producing an outstanding solo album of Bach interpretations. In spite of their Grammy wins and popularity with audiences, it can sometimes feel as if Punch Brothers is his extracurricular project. The Phosphorescent Blues is as carefully realised a work as anything else Thile has yet done and may be the album to change this perception. Based around themes of connectedness (or not) in the modern, digital world, The Phosphorescent Blues unashamedly reaches out with music that not only dazzles with its fluency but also engages on melodic, harmonic and rhythmic levels.
Bravely, the band play their trump card first here with the remarkable tripartite epic
Familiarity. This is a great piece of musical synthesis that incorporates an exhilarating, dexterous first phase, some rich and full Brian Wilson-esque vocal harmonies and a wonderfully quiet and intimate coda. Working with producer T Bone Burnett for the first time on a studio project, the band have utilised the full potential of the studio here, capturing the closeness and versatility of their acoustic sound as well as adorning it with some intriguing effects, with bassist Paul Kowert impressing with his bowing.
The band are joined by drummer Jay Bellerose on a handful of tracks, and Burnett adds some discrete electric guitar, the band relishing in breaking two of the unwritten rules of their bluegrass aesthetic. This has resulted in the entertaining paradox of two songs here being both among their most conventional and their most surprising. Magnet is the closest they have come to writing an R&B or rock n’ roll song, lustful, urgent, infectious and propelled by a direct and powerful riff. Similarly, I Blew It Off is their pop moment – crowned by an exhilarating, soaring chorus where Thile’s vocal stretches into falsetto territory.
The Phosphorescent Blues is an album filled with disarming, beautiful moments. The high vocal harmonies during the second half of the delightfully light touched Julep are exquisite, whilst the band’s arrangement of the Passepied from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque (originally for solo piano) is both accurate and imaginative. The closing Little Lights ties many of the album’s over-arching themes together, featuring a crowd sourced choir of the band’s fans and making a genuine emotional statement.