Album review: Tahoe-bound Punch Brothers paint musical pictures in ‘Phosphorescent Blues’

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The Punch Brothers fill the stage at the 2014 High Sierra Music Festival. Tim Parsons/ Tahoe Onstage
The sky is gradually turning from yellow to red over the wetlands. A flock of starlings are nesting in the grasses. The day is starting to turn over and there is a serene calm. A rustling in the shrubs across the flats alerts the birds and they begin to chip in agitation. Danger is felt but not known. Suddenly, the whole flock of starlings take to the sky in a frantic mass. Back and forth they twist and turn in chaotic unison. Each bird strives to stay as close to its neighbor as possible and each deviation in speed and direction is magnified in the swirling undulations of the flock. As suddenly as they ascended, the birds descend into the safety of the trees to await the night. This is the picture that comes to mind when listening to “Familiarity,” the first song on the Punch Brothers’ majestic new album “The Phosphorescent Blues.” The album feels like a walk through an intimate art gallery with oil paintings and sculptures displayed in soft lighting. The song’s on “The Phosphorescent Blues” are able to transcend musical notes and create fully realized portraits of human emotions and relationships that are as vivid as the 1928 Rene Margritte surrealist painting “The Lovers II” that is the album’s cover art.
Tim Parsons
Chris Thile, right, and Chris Elridge at High Sierra. Tim Parsons/ Tahoe Onstage
The Punch Brothers formed in 2005 after acclaimed mandolinist Chris Thile recruited violinist Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Greg Garrison (who was later replaced by current bassist Paul Kowert in 2008) to perform a folk-classical suite called “The Blind Leaving the Blind” that Thile had composed. Since then, the group has been making beautiful music that weaves elements of classical, folk, bluegrass, jazz, rock and pop. Though the band plays instruments that are traditionally used to play bluegrass, the instruments do not dictate how the band plays them and “Phosphorescent Blues” is an album that defies any attempt to constrain it to sounding like any one kind of musical genre. “Julep,” in which Thile contemplates about death over a tip-toeing bass line, conjures up an image of a person silently meandering through a mansion at midnight with a candle looking for an unknown secret amongst the old family relics and and heirlooms. The band’s cover of impressionist composer Claude Debussy’s “Passepied” feels like it is being played to the pirouettes of a ballet troupe. One of the album’s highlights, “My Oh My” paints a portrait of a couple as they flit along a secluded riverside, tangled together in love. “My, oh, my what a wonderful day we’re having/ Why, oh, why are we looking for a way outside it/ How long, oh Lord, can you keep the world spinning under our thumbs,” sings Thile. Thile’s voice resonates like a crystal wine glass whose rim is being rubbed by a wet finger as he soars over the verses and his angelic twang is one of the centerpieces of the album. “Magnet” grinds with the fiery tension that exists between two people who have yet to act on their burning mutual attraction as the band romps through a start-stop beat. The key addition of pulsating drums really drive the song and percussion throughout the album benefits some of the lighter compositions that could have floated away without its anchoring.
Tim Parsons
Gabe Witcher plays violin for the Punch Brothers. Tim Parsons/ Tahoe Onstage
The album’s most emotionally raw song comes in the form of “Forgotten.” Lamentous violin and mandolin swirl together as a person looks back on their life. But as all seems lost, the chorus opens up like the arms of a loved one as the band’s hushed harmony reveals “Hey there it’s all going to be fine/ You ain’t gonna die alone/ You ain’t gonna be forgotten.” It’s a glowing revelation and something that every person desires deep in their soul. “The Phosphorescent Blues” is the most ambitious album by the Punch Brothers. The band manages to elevate the emotional resonance of the album, something that is not fully achieved on past albums, and to keep pushing its virtuosic musical abilities to places that string instruments have not yet ventured. It will be on repeat for many years to come. The Punch Brothers play at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe on March 28.  
Punch Brothers The Punch Brothers ‘The Phosphorescent Blues’ Nonesuch Records Release: Jan. 27, 2015 for CD, Feb. 24 for vinyl Notable Tracks: “Familiarity,” “Forgotten,” “My Oh My,” “Magnet” Purchase: LINK  
Chris Elridge and Paul Kowert. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
Chris Elridge and Paul Kowert. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
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Chris Thile and Noam Pikelny. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

ABOUT Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann
Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. An eight-year resident of Lake Tahoe, he now lives in Denver, Colorado.

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