The most frustrating thing about the Punch Brother’s new album Who’s Feeling Young Now? is how immeasurably close they came to creating a work that could stand easily alongside the records that it is drawing inspiration from. And maybe “frustrating” is too strong a word, because by all accounts Young is a record that’s full of the typical sonic wonder and musical mastery you’ve come to expect from this band. But about halfway through the record it becomes awkwardly clear that somewhere along the journey of making this record, Chris Thile and friends took a trip down ADD Lane and there was nobody to help them find their way back, making Young an undeniably fantastic record, just one that feels like it was made by 3 slightly different bands.
For at least a third of the album, the Punch Brothers effectively cement their status as one of the greatest American bands performing in this era or any other. Hip-hop? Funk? Electronica? These are risky sounds for a “bluegrass” band, but then Punch Brothers have never been your run of the mill, every day finger pickers. This band has always flirted with pop and indie music with a delicate yet masterful hand as if to say “Here’s how you do it folks”. Those tendencies are once again on full display here, and in fact provide some of the most thought provoking, ear-stimulating moments of their careers.
On “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” the song, the space between the acoustic instrumentation is filled with so many implied beats, so much downright funkiness, that it wouldn’t have been surprising at all if Rhianna had stepped up to the mic to finish the track off in some divine pop fashion (In fact on first listen it sounds like Thile actually name checks Rhianna in the song...he doesn’t). Similarly, the albums opener, “Movement and Location”, pulls from the same rickety beats that powered Radiohead’s seminal album Kid A, and in doing so lifts the Punch Brothers music up out of its old country home, and into an arena where the band is directly competing with millions of other “indie” bands for your earbud’s attentions..and likely winning it.
And speaking of Kid A...
The Punch Brothers cover of the title track from Radiohead’s singularity of “indie” existence is nothing short of a belief shattering exercise in what we think music should be, how we think it’s made, and most of all what it can become. To hear those sounds played out solely on acoustic instruments imbues the chilly track with a heartbreaking soul that must have always been there, but until now had remained hidden under layers of electronic aesthetic. The control and restraint exhibited on the track is nothing short of astounding, and in the end the only thing left to say about this remarkable reinterpretation is “Whoa.”
More often than not though, that’s reaction you hear to the Punch Brothers music. So when the band switches into a more literary mode on songs like “No Concern Of Yours” (‘Banjo-noir’ anyone?), or the songs “Hundred Dollars” and “New York” (both co-written by Josh Ritter), they certainly aren’t taking a dive off a cliff quality wise. Quite the contrary. These songs also break into slightly new territory for the band that is only mildly less exciting. The same can be said for the tracks “Clara” and “This Girl”, which revisit an established sound dating back to 2006’s “unofficial” Punch Brothers record, How To Grow A Woman From A Ground (Released as a Chris Thile solo record, it featured the “How To Grow A Band” Band - a group made up of most of the current members of Punch Brothers), yet both tracks manage to push that sound ever so slightly, every so subtly, forward.
But what ultimately keeps Who’s Feeling Young Now? from being the modern masterpiece that it very easily could have been, is its own hyperactive sense of adventure. There’s no doubt that the musicians who make up Punch Brothers (Chris Thile - mandolin/lead vocals, Gabe Witcher - fiddle/lead vocals on “Hundred Dollars”, Paul Kowert - bass, Noam Pikelny - banjo, Chris Eldridge - guitar) are masters of their craft. But, for example, to drop the plainly generic cover of Vasen’s “Flippen”, as straight-forward a bluegrass song as there ever was, right in the middle of a record that is mostly trying, and succeeding to push not only the boundaries of it’s creators, but the very boundaries of what a pop song can be these days, seems like a misstep. A misstep that could have been avoided had the Punch Brothers had been slightly more focused on the album as a whole rather than, apparently, the individual songs.
That nitpick aside Who’s Feeling Young Now? is still a fantastically rewarding trip of a record...it is the Punch Brothers after all. And it’s not like “Flippen” is a bad song. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it nominated for a Grammy this year. So for those who were simply waiting for more music from the Punch Brothers, the record is a total win. Hell, it’s a total win for anyone who likes this kind of music period.
For this reviewer though, while I find myself loving this album more with each successive listen, I’m holding out for that Punch Brothers album that breaks down all the boundaries that they’ve been pushing against their entire career. I’m waiting for their masterpiece. Their Kid A. But if they keep this up something tells me I won’t be waiting much longer.