Phosphorescent Blues confuses fans
Childhood mandolin prodigy Chris Thile continues to wow listeners with his virtuosity at age 33. Thile made a name for himself with the progressive acoustic band Nickel Creek in 1989, and since their dissolution has become a popular collaborator due to his undeniable talent and genre crossover ability. In 2006, Chris Thile formed The Punch Brothers, then called How to Grow a Band, and cut their first album How to Grow a Woman from the Ground.
Since 2006 The Punch Brothers have released four additional albums, the most recent of which is Phosphorescent Blues, released this week. Straddling bluegrass, alternative rock, and classical genres, the band focused on various areas for each of their past albums and projects. Coming off of the success of their last studio album Who’s Feeling Young Now, the band had a lot to live up to, giving their fans some of the same kinds of music while continuing to explore their sound. As a result, fans have had very specific criticisms of this most recent album depending on the genre they would like the band to lean toward.
The band, made up of frontman singer and mandolin player Chris Thile, violinist Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and bassist Paul Kowert, all contribute their prodigal skill in complex and virtuosic musical demonstrations during each number (each band member also lends additional vocals.) Phosphorescent Blues is no exception. On the song “My Oh My,” Pikelny’s quick banjo licks make the rhythmic nature of the song fun and exciting. “My Oh My,” a single from the album, is inarguably the catchiest song and one that is the most reminiscent of the lyric-driven, harmony-filled, and chorus-oriented numbers from Who’s Feeling Young Now.
However, “My Oh My” is one of the only satisfying moments from the album for those looking for more songs like favorites “Who’s Feeling Young Now” or “This Girl.” In general the tenor of this latest album is more laidback, with calmer, more soothing melodies that are more classically influenced. Indeed there are a few solely instrumental pieces including “Passepied,” an arrangement of Debussy. These classical interpretations are beautiful and certainly fascinating for lovers of Debussy and other composers listeners they may recognize. These pieces are similar to Thile’s earlier period of instrumental arrangements of classical pieces as well as his album Not All Who Wander are Lost. The removal of a vocal line allows the instrumentation to become even more textured than it is in some of the other numbers.
The majority of the numbers are more bluesy — as the title of the album would suggest. “Forgotten” is a melodic exploration of the lyrics and doesn’t adhere to the more traditional song structure of some of their earlier works. While one might appreciate the avant-garde nature of such songs, some of them work and some of them get a little overwrought toward the end. “Between 1st and A” is such a song, where calm soothing humming over long expanses of strumming (though incredibly impressive), isn’t super thought-provoking or stimulating. “Julep,” another single from the record, is an example of when a rambling musical exploration works in a satisfying way. In addition, “Julep” lyrics such as “heaven’s a julep on the porch,” conjure up vivid imagery. The song moves forward to give listeners new material often enough to keep them entertained.
Thile and the band have obvious talent as songwriters and arrangers. Though they run the risk of being too noisy due to the prevalence of strummy and melodic acoustic instruments, arrangements are nuanced enough so that the banjo, guitar, mandolin, and violin combination never gets aurally overbearing. Lyrically the songs are interesting, having inspirations ranging from failed relationships to beautiful and wonderful days, and a lot of ground is covered.
Phosphorescent Blues is not a disappointment in the sense that The Punch Brothers have lost what makes them so special in the genre crossover world. But due to its combination of musical types: alternative rock pieces from albums like Who’s Feeling Young Now, experimental roaming bluegrass tunes, and instrumental arrangements of classical music, the album loses some of its coherence. Previous albums have had a more coherent musical sound, but this one leaves listeners feeling a little unsettled and confused. These complaints, however, are not enough to make a faithful Punch Brothers fan disheartened and it will be very exciting to see what these men do in the future.