Four albums in, and Punch Brothers have come a long way from their beginnings on Chris Thile's "How To Grow A Woman From The Ground". On their previous outing, "Who's Feeling Young Now?" the degree to which "bluegrass" was a valid term was lessened considerably. With "the Phosphorescent Blues", the tag seems utterly redundant, as does every variant thereafter ("Prog-grass" being a favourite … horrible terminology indeed).
I'm going to leave aside all references to the fact that Punch Brothers are a technically gifted group: their mastery of their instruments is unquestionable. However, I will say that these technical skills can make for a somewhat tiring experience: the endless cascade of notes, even when slowed, makes for a lot to absorb. There are only so many counterpoint arpeggios that the ear can take before you long for Peter Buck's simplistic eBow playing. That's enough of that.
The album's opener, "Familiarity" is an epic beast, akin to "Movement and Location" from "Who's Feeling Young Now?" It is the harmonic structure of these tracks that perhaps have spawned the "prog-grass" tag more than any other, as there are clear echoes of Radiohead, as well as Pet Sounds/Smile era Beach Boys, hints of The Beatles (as filtered through ELO, perhaps), a dollop of Stravinsky (with a jus of Frank Zappa) and numerous other small asides to music that has grander ambition than the average Iggy Azalea track. The song has clear movements and motifs, clear melodies, and makes each step clearly and with an unfailing certainty.
By contrast, "Julep" (possibly my favourite track on offer in this collection, both lyrically and melodically) has a beautifully lazy feel, and is – for me, at least, one of the strongest songs Thile & co have yet produced.
While the whole concept of an acoustic quintet comprising mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and double bass is one that works, the scope of their explorations is such that they are fast becoming limited. The inclusion of drums and electric guitars (as supplied by producer, T Bone Burnett) seems to underline this, and the only question is how long can Punch Brothers hold off including electronic versions of their instruments, and the use of electronic effects, be they as simple as a flanger foot pedal or wah wah, or more complex like a laptop and the plethora of possibilities it offers.
Punch Brothers seem intent on exploring new territory with each album, yet seem equally intent on staying put. One of these days, they're going to have to commit, and realise they can't retain all their fans with every album, and make the plunge into their own unique identity. Of course, they may simply enjoy the safer and more obvious stuff. Which, as they say, is fair enough.
Despite the shortcomings, though, this is an album I can keep returning to. The high points on this record are exceptionally high, while the low points are still a great deal better than many other artist's entire output.
And who would have thought that Magritte's "The Lovers" would make such a great album cover? And more to the point, who would have expected the band that would finally go ahead and use it would be these guys? Mad props etc for that. In fact, a huzzah or two. Why not!?