Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: The Phosphorescent Blues : Punch Brothers

A new Punch Brothers record. There’s hardly a better way to start off 2015.

Three years after the Who’s Feeling Young, the bluegrass (ish) quintet has released its fourth album, The Phosphorescent Blues.

After driving around with it for a few weeks, I’m finally sorting out my thoughts on this album that at first listen, I didn’t really like.

Immediately, I missed the tightness and focus of Who’s Feeling Young. It was, at times, a ledge to climb up on – Chris Thile and co. referenced more musically than you could be expected to catch, but it didn’t detract from the enjoyment or understanding of the album as a whole. If any a piece of art deserves the non-diluted fullness of the word “interesting,” it’s Who’s Feeling Young.

The Phosphorescent Blues sounds like the album you’d make after being told you’re a genius and putting out an album of mandolin Bach covers. It’s ambitious, but in the mounting sense of someone who is still figuring out it’s ok to be.

And that’s a weird thing to say about Thile, because looking all the way back to Nickel Creek, you couldn’t really say that staying within safe or traditional boundaries was on the agenda.

But take the opening track, “Familiarity.” It’s a 10-minute-long sprawl with three movements, akin to “Movement and Location” as the album’s big swing, but it’s almost too big to see all at once.

The dynamic shifts, the production choices that send Thile’s voice receding into the ether, the Four Freshmen-esque harmonies, all held together by not just a few recurring flourishes, but more so by Thile’s confidence to stray into a space that isn’t even as neat as to qualify as experimental genre-blending.

At their best, the Punch Brothers sound the way you’d imagine the guts of a really high-end, handmade, antique watch look – layers of perfectly functioning gears, ticking away.

That’s where a lot of the enjoyment of their last record, as well as this one, comes from. But as meticulous as they can be in their arrangements, that same intentionality doesn’t always shake out well when constructing overarching themes.

I’ll tell you two things here.

One, I thought this album was mostly about death.

On the cover, a guy and gal try to kiss though their heads are wrapped in white sheets, like burial shrouds – as if Romeo and Juliet even after poison and steel still couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The second track, “Julep,” (more on this later) is a hazed look back at life from a dead narrator. “Boll Weevil” threatens destruction. “Forgotten,” assures someone they won’t die alone and won’t be forgotten.

And in twist of word association that has nothing to the band, I think of a story I heard about my grandfather. When he was a little boy, he lived near a cemetery, and sometimes at night he could see an eerie glow coming up from the ground. It was the phosphorous dead bodies give off when they decompose – an unsettling yet alluring suggestion at both the scientific and the surreal.

So, I think phosphorus, and I think death. And fish. But that’s neither here nor there.

The other thing I’ll tell you – I went on a Googling expedition. Thile and fiddler Gabe Witcher talked with NPR about the album, and in 3 minutes and 52 seconds, blew my illusions about the oddly comforting inkiness of this album from the beyond.

They said the name of the album pulls from the experience of performing to a crowd futzing with its cellphones.

“It's actually kind of a beautiful lighting effect. I bet you they have no idea how well lit they are from stage,” Thile said.

And just like that – everything surfaced. I checked back over the lyrics. When Thile sings “your trouble vibrates the table,” there’s no poetry there. He’s talking about a cell phone. It’s an album utterly stacked with referenced to distraction in the digital age.

That brought me to consider the strange contrast feeling as though they’d reached out and up for some musical grandness, but then really believing that singing about the aesthetic intrusions of technology is way too close to the ground for them.

Do I want Chris Thile preaching to me? I’ll get back to you.

I’d prefer the reassuring lesson that comes with a song like “Julep.”

How’s this for an opening line: “I died happy in my sleep.”

Normally, I’d be wildly uncomfortable. I just don’t like thinking about these things, but “Julep” is so gorgeous. If heaven really is a julep on the porch, then that doesn’t sound so bad. The reflections of the narrator on meeting his wife, having a daughter, experiencing lightness of life in a simple habit like winding a grandfather clock, create a sense of sweet satisfaction that’s not treacly or maudlin. Because it doesn’t have to be! And that’s just not the way anyone tends to handle the topic of dying, and especially when the perspective is from the deceased.

Instead of regret or retroactive interpretation, the narrator has the best parts close at heart and that’s all.

To me, the noble match to what the Punch Brothers are doing musically is not only the treatment of the death in that song, but the way that mood pervades the looser spaces on the album.

But, if you look at the back cover, you’ll see the band staring into their phones, lit up with “those phosphorescent pinks and blues.” In case you’d like to ignore the text, they don’t leave you much of an option.

On the last track, “Little Lights,” Thile takes one more turn prodding the listener with that wry little comment “Look at us, we’re glowing.”

He’s not really condemning. That would be pretty hypocritical. The funny thing is that the swelling chorus toward the end of the song was crowdsourced and came from the recordings a lot of fans submitted from all over the world. Thank you very much, internet, for all the distracting little projects you serve up on a minute-to-minute basis.

If anyone could pull off having it both way, I suppose it’s Thile.

Even the title splits itself into a double meaning in both the color of the light from a cellphone in a darkened concert venue, and the strangeness he and Witcher acknowledged in that NPR interview of playing in front of a crowd of people who aren’t totally there.

I’m due to catch them at the Ryman at the end of the month. You best believe I’m leaving my phone in my purse.

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