Sunday, March 11, 2012

Newgrass Bluegrass: Punch Brothers' Who's Feeling Young Now?

Who’s Feeling Young Now? (Nonesuch 2012) is the third album by the rising bluegrass band called Punch Brothers. It’s a valiant record full of stories of hard fought battles between the sexes and the insecurities of being a parent. It’s also an album of cloistered conceits and an expression of an uncertain future all under the peculiar sound of instruments best suited to mountain music and country-dances. The Punch Brothers formed in 2006 after a series of meetings that involved large quantities of wine and food and complaining about failed relationships. Led by Chris Thile (mandolin, lead vocals) and Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Punch Brothers is essentially a rock band with acoustic instruments. The group, which also features Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert, (double bass), perform their own music with scarcely a traditional bluegrass song in site. It is for this reason that Punch Brothers deserves attention rather than dismissal. The result is contemporary songs performed with a bluegrass aesthetic.

Bluegrass is American mountain music usually restricted to traditional folk tunes and hymns. It was made popular in the modern era, by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s, but restricted to country radio and state fairs. By the 1960s, Flatt & Scruggs led the way with the theme from the CBS television show, The Beverly Hillbillies. While the music was good, it probably suffered from the cliché of being associated with poor white folk who weren’t particularly bright and ate possum stew. "Newgrass" music that has grown in the past 10 years goes beyond the regular Kentucky songbook. Alison Krauss and Union Station certainly made inroads into mainstream music, but the recent surge followed due to the Coen Brother's movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) an entertaining film that brought bluegrass music to forefront.

Suddenly, you had Ralph Stanley leading tours around the world and Country singers such as Ricky Skaggs, releasing traditional bluegrass music with commercial success to the surprise of record companies who never expected to make anything off the cottage industry that was bluegrass. It was a genre that barely left the American continent. Next thing you know, Steve Martin releases two traditional bluegrass albums with sizable sales for Rare Bird Alert (2011) and The Crow (2009) reinforcing the music's place in the mainstream. For Martin, who usually under-played his role as a leader and more of an enthusiast, remains a regular guest on national talk shows, such as David Letterman. His appearances must have roused interest in bluegrass as decent, well-played roots music.

Punch Brothers performing in San Francisco in 2011 (Photo by Michael Sharps)

I love bluegrass because it doesn't sound like anything else in the genre. It requires technical virtuosity but only in the service of the music. Consequently, one hears some great playing because bluegrass is a combination of tradition and improvisation. The Punch Brothers have a combination of great Bluegrass chops, but their songs are entirely contemporary. Like their first two releases, Punch (2008) and Antifogmatic (2010), their new record features all original material, except for a sublime version of Radiohead's "Kid A." The Punch Brothers also do a song on the new Chieftains record and they make an appearance on Dierks Bentley's album Up On the Ridge, on a decidedly happy version of "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" by Bob Dylan. I'm not crazy about this version but it does reveal the mountain music occasionally disguised on some of Dylan's own recordings.

Who’s Feeling Young Now? is an exciting, energetic record because the playing matches the enthusiasm of the vocals. All of the elements of bluegrass can be heard here, including the quality of the harmonies often associated with bluegrass, particularly on the first track, “Movement and Location.” The songs are inspired and funny, especially the last track, “Don’t Get Married Without Me.” It’s about a relationship that’s gone sour and the narrator fears the worst during a “break” in the union. As Chris Thile sings “Let’s not fool ourselves/ Taking a break is dragging out a breakup too long/ Help yourself to whatever you like with whomever you like/ But don’t get married without me.”

George Bernard Shaw is attributed with saying that “youth is wasted on the young.” The Punch Brothers would beg to differ because they’re having the time of their lives, warts and all.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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