|If you recognize the cover, it's because it's a Magritte|
Well, it’s been a month since my last post—the first time I’ve missed a week since I began this blog 2.5 years ago. I suppose a couple of weeks in the hospital with an leg infection is as good excuse as any. But I’m back, and I’m going to review the new Punch Brothers’ album, The Phosphorescent Blues.
Despite producing this album with T Bone Burnett, the Punch Brothers were probably not looking to break into the pop charts with their new album. What they did, though, is what they’ve done for their previous albums—take their traditional bluegrass instrumentation and transform that ensemble’s sound into something novel.
So what’s the secret of Punch Brother’s unique sound in this album? While it is hard to boil their varied compositional techniques down to the most vital, I think I can identify three broad strokes: (1) constructing complex textures, usually bit by bit, with multiple instruments playing repetitive but complex parts, and (2) exploring complex harmonies, and (3) taking time for instrumental interludes between voice parts, which in turn allows for more of (1) and (2).
The highlight of the album is the first track, “Familiarity,” despite its 10-minute length; it’s not really one song, but three spliced together. The song never ceases to surprise throughout, as it moves from one musical idea to another while maintaining some semblance continuity. “Forgotten” and “Between 1st and A” also exemplify the above characteristics.
Instead of the acoustic versions of electric songs that were featured on the previous albums, this time Punch Brothers tries something new—they transcribe two early 20th-century piano pieces from Debussy and Scriabin for their ensemble. These two tracks achieve the same result as the acoustic/electric songs, though—they serve as a Punch Brothers’ showcase of imaginative timbre.
There are a few pieces that perhaps aspire to the pop charts: “I Blew It Off,” “Magnet,” and “Little Lights.” Perhaps not coincidentally, these are also the tracks on which T Bone Burnett plays electric guitar. I think these are perhaps the low point of the album. The chorus of “I Blew It Off” is so formulaic that it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the tracks, and “Magnet,” despite having a pretty good guiding metaphor, lacks the inventive melodic lines of other songs. Also, the chorus of “Magnet” just begs to go somewhere harmonically, but doesn’t. “Little Lights” doesn’t seem to go anywhere musically or harmonically, either, but tries to make up for it by adding more volume. Despite the addition of a crowd of voices, I think it falls flat—there’s just not enough musical ideas to sustain the track through the build.
Despite the low points, I think the album deserves a spot with the other Punch Brothers albums as a masterpiece. I’m not disappointed with the album as a whole at all. Even the inferior tracks have great moments and ideas. The Punch Brothers are one the best groups pushing the boundaries of popular music, and they continue to push and succeed on The Phosphorescent Blues.
Vocab: harmony, transcribe, acoustic, timbre