Magically, I don’t even remember how, Punch Brothers’ album The Phosphorescent Blues (January 2015, Nonesuch) fell into my consciousness. I kind of remember seeing the album cover, and thinking that it was pretty interesting looking, though I am not sure if that was the first time I came into contact with the album. Whatever the circumstances, once I sat down to listen to The Phosphorescent Blues, I was truly awestruck.
I was only vaguely familiar with Punch Brothers before finding The Phosphorescent Blues, though I was a bit more cognizant of Chris Thile. Still, I wasn’t all that familiar with Thile’s old band, Nickel Creek; I knew of them, but that was about it. I haven’t really taken the time to listen to Punch Brothers’ back catalog, so I can’t really speak much to The Phosphorescent Blues’ placement within their œuvre, but if this album is any indication of what I would find, I really should find some time to listen.
(Some of ) The Pieces
The Phosphorescent Blues starts with a sweeping, ten-minute piece, called “Familiarity.” This one song sounds like five, changing tempos, grooves, keys, and overall affect at least half-a-dozen times. Except for the fact that “Familiarity’s” orchestra consists of mandolin, violin, banjo, acoustic guitar, and double bass, it sounds like something straight off of a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis album smashed together with Pet Sounds. I don’t care much for prog-rock, generally, but anything that even pretends to imitate Pet Sounds is bound to catch my attention. (Remember how I wrote my PhD dissertation on Brian Wilson?)
It seems like most bands with as many chops as Punch Brothers can’t resist the temptation to turn their music into nothing but a “shred fest” (hence, one of the reasons I am not so into prog-rock), but Punch Brothers largely avoids this. “Familiarity” comes with an abundance of virtuosic flair, but it is never simply virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake.
One of my favorite moments in this song is when the band imitates a tape or digital-delay effect. The players hit a chord and repeat it precisely, dropping the volume each time. On the third repeat of this figure the banjo breaks form and plays a repetitive melody; on the fifth repeat the mandolin enters with an intricate muted rhythmic groove. Not much later, Thile et al. break into a gorgeous a cappella section, one that sounds somewhere between The Beach Boys and Palestrina. Really, it is stunning.
At 6:00, “Familiarity” turns into an entirely different song: a subdued ballad featuring Thile’s (mostly) solo vocals. After the first verse-chorus, there is a lovely, sensitive violin solo. The transition between this much slower, softer portion of the song and the wilder stuff before it happens via a nice, long, drowning reverb tail. But, I am not sure why this isn’t a separate piece altogether.
Another standout track is “I Blew It Off.” This one is probably the most “radio friendly” of the lot. What’s great, though, is that it starts out like a Steve Reich piece (or at least something Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois). At the chorus, it breaks into a straightforward folk-rock feel. In the bridge back to the verse, the violinist (Gabe Witcher) sneaks in a great solo—his judicious use of vibrato here is perfect … I wish more fiddlers would follow suit.
Though, it’s not as windy a path as was “Familiarity,” “I Blew It Off” still packs a few surprises. Each chorus adds more vocals, simply harmonies at first, followed by some more polyphonic layering.. The changes in texture serve as nice palette cleansers throughout the song.
“My Oh My” is another great song. This one is one of the first really bluegrass-sounding moments on the album. It doesn’t start that way, though. It is only when Thile et al.’s blues-inflected vocals move into the song’s bridge that that Appalachian flavor really shows up. As before, “My Oh My” is a bit restless, the chorus calms down considerably, first supported only by Thile’s mandolin, with the others players entering at various points. The final verse is fully-orchestrated, and the vocals are full, complete with soaring falsettos. A great moment comes around 3:45. The two vocal parts dip below their ultimate note and swoop up to it, both staying perfectly in tune throughout this portamento. Impressive. The band’s use of dynamic contrast is also impressive in this piece.
True to the group’s crossover leanings, The Phosphorescent Blues includes two arrangements of pieces from the late-19th-century: a version of the Passepied from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque and an arrangement of Scriabin’s Prélude in C minor, Op. 22, no. 2. Though I want to love the Debussy (because, really, what is not to love about Debussy?), this arrangement isn’t great. The Scriabin is a little better, but it’s nothing earth-shattering.
The album’s closing piece, “Little Lights,” is a gorgeous ballad featuring more of the now-familiar vocal harmonies. (Curiously, Thile grew up in Carlsbad, CA … maybe that is where he picked up his penchant for Beach Boy harmonies.) The song slowly builds to a rousing, sing-along, Coldplay-esque (in the best way) repeating chorus. Given the chops these guys have, it would have been easy to let this one get away from them. There is so much crescendo, both in volume and texture, that it would be a lesser-calibered band’s cue to dig in and show off; Punch Brothers stops short. The song ends even more softly than it began, which is perfect.
Seriously, this is an amazing album, and you really need to hear it. Force yourself, if necessary. I promise it will be worth it.