Album Review – Punch Brothers – “Who’s Feeling Young Now”

The Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

* * * * 1/2

With Who’s Feeling Young Now, the Punch Brothers have completed the musical trifecta (which also includes For The Good Times and Hello Cruel World) shaping my current listening experience. There’s a joy and delight to this album that only becomes deeper and further realized with each play though.

As a rabid Nickel Creek fan, I’ve understood Chris Thile’s genius for more than a decade. But I was hesitant in diving into the Punch Brothers after feeling alienated by his How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Thile’s knack for high-pitched singing was foreign to my ears and his experimental nature jolted me too far out of my musical comfort zone without smooth transition. But that didn’t stop me from diving into Who’s Feeling Young Now, my first foray into his latest musical creation.

Like any great musical work, the album transports the listener into a world all its own, a place nonexistent on the geological map. The mix of mandolin and fiddle ground the record in a post-apocalyptic meets gypsy-like setting (think “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss), and the instraments used throughout fuse together to create a sound completely unique and original.

This is most obvious on the opening track, “Movement and Location,” a rousing mix of mandolin, upright bass, and haunting fiddle inspired by former Major League Baseball Player and Cy Young Award recipient Greg Maddux. Thile uses the range of his talents to full effect and brings an otherworldly element to the track by going places with his voice I never dreamt possible.  You’re not likely to hear a more interesting song this year.

Another example of the band’s animalistic prowess is “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a weirdly off-beat traveling circus-like number that opens with a downward fiddle crescendo that leads into Thile’s dazzling manipulation of the mandolin. But the combination of his outlandish yet ordinary vocal delivery proves he’s mastered the comedic undertones of the lyrics, but isn’t trying to reach parody in his delivery.

Going even further into this eccentrically experiential universe is “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” in which strokes of mandolin gel beautifully with frantic bursts of fiddle and touches of banjo. The track benefits greatly from a lack of fullness musically, as the darkness of Thile’s vocal and the harmonies with his fellow band members shine through.

But for all the improvisation going on, Who’s Feeling Young Now has its fare share of “normal” moments, too. The art of Progressive Bluegrass, which the band is categorized under, is to sound completely modern in your approach to the acoustic stylings of Bluegrass while still maintaining a sound mixture familiar to purists. While there isn’t anything traditional about their approach, they hit this melting pot head on. A few of the tracks seem to evoke a touch of pop/rock almost like a roots version of Mumford and Sons.

My favorite of their less funky numbers is the bouncy “This Girl” which elicits the joy of young love and the rekindling of a father/son relationship. The driving mandolin blankets the song in a sunny warmth and the rapid-fire lyrics bring fourth the intensity of his feelings towards the prettiest backslider in the world.

Another standout is the title track, the most pop/rock influecned on the whole album. The opening mix of mandolin and acoustic guitar is heightened by the introduction of fiddle to create a layering of instruments giving the listener the feeling of a full band. It’s my other favorite song on the album because I’m drawn to the receptive nature of the lyrics, in which Thile repeats they tried to tell us and at times we tried to listen to almost primal screams in the final moments of the song. But beyond that, the lyrics, written by the band, are genuinely crafted. The way they’re able to string words together is a work of art.

As much as Who’s Feeling Young Now is an upbeat, full of driving beats, and not-much-heard musical manipulations, there are a few slower moments that add depth to the overall sound. “No Concern Of Yours” may be the closest thing to Krauss’s trademark style, while “Soon or Never” brings back found memories of Nickel Creek’s early days (i.e. “When You Come Back Down” and “The Reason Why”). Of the slower songs, “Clara” is easily the most progressive, and showcases Thile’s higher register, which in the six years since How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, has become a taste I’ve happily acquired.

Like any great acoustic band, time to show off your instrumental abilities is key when giving the audience the fullest picture of yourselves as a band. Plus, its the time to let loose and just play for playing sake. That’s almost unnecessary here, though, because every song more than accomplishes that directive. But, nonetheless, we have “Flippin (The Flip),” a rousing number that gives ample time for Thile to showcase his skills as a mandolin prodigy, Gabe Witcher a spotlight for his fiddle playing, and Chris Eldridge another chance to blend in his acoustic guitar. The less straightforward “Kid A” is also in the mix, and brings the album back to its gypsy-like beginnings.

Overall, in pinning the three albums in the trifecta against each other, Who’s Feeling Young Now comes out on top. Without a doubt, its the most exhilarating album I’ve heard in quite a long time and, in my book, the best country/bluegrass/roots album of 2012 so far. I’ll be quite surprised if any mainstream country release will be able to top this in the coming months.


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