Two songs into Punch I was ready to call this album the best piece of modern acoustic music ever recorded. After giving the complete album a few more thorough listens it’s clear that that conclusion is a bit hasty, but that doesn’t mean my initial excitement was unwarranted.
Punch Brothers are the newest incarnation of the band that recorded mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile’s 2006 record How to Grow a Woman From the Ground. But Punch is a huge departure from the traditional bluegrass sound that characterized that record. The band features Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Greg Garrison, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and fiddle player Gabe Witcher.
The core of the album is “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” an epic four movement, forty-plus minute piece composed by Thile. The piece’s structure bears more resemblance to a classical concerto than a traditional bluegrass tune. Some sections weave together sweet bluegrass melodies with layers of harmony and counterpoint, while others have droning minor key picking behind Thile’s introspective lyrics, which reflect on his recent divorce. The performance is breathtaking in its precision, and the shear ambition of the composition is extremely impressive.
The rest of the album is made up of four songs written by the entire band. Of those four, the opening track, “Punch Bowl,” stands out. The song features major key violin passages shifting between dissonant chords and off beat rhythms; it’s just about the furthest thing from traditional bluegrass that’s ever been recorded by a five-piece bluegrass group.
The album isn’t perfect, however. For all its ambition and grandeur, “The Blind Leaving the Blind” lags at times with a little too much openness between sections. The track “Nothing, Then” is a repetitive stomp that’s really uninspiring considering the virtuosity of the group. And the final track, “It’ll Happen,” while a pretty song, is a bit of a snoozer to close such a progressive album.
Still, Punch is a vision of the future of bluegrass and acoustic music, a future where lightning fast licks aren’t the end of the story but the beginning, and where traditional instrumentation and complex song structures combine in beautiful ways.