We’re two hours in, half way to our destination and HRH is making faces into her iPad thingee; God knows why. Oliver Stone she definitely is not. Kelly is engrossed in a sad movie and is sobbing to herself and I can only wonder what the other passengers are making of this whole spectacle going on in our row. I’m choosing to pretend that I notice none of it by keeping my nose in my book and continuing on with the mellow tunes, this time ‘The Phosphorescent Blues‘ by The Punch Brothers.
Released last year (2015) and aided by producer T-Bone Burnett – that auteur of Americana acoustica, who previously worked with the band on his soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ folkie saga ‘Inside Llewyn Davis‘ – the Punch Brothers indulge themselves in impressionism on their fourth full-length, having the guts to open with a ten-minute suite that plays a bit like the fourth side of a double-vinyl from 1971 (‘Familiarity‘). It also performs a nifty trick of sorting out the true believers. If the coziness of the title feels like a knowing joke, as it certainly doesn’t follow conventional contours – grabs a listener’s attention with its elliptical ebb and flow, chances are the rest of the record will play smoothly as it dips into Debussy and scrapes by Scriabin, taking longer to linger on sunshine harmonies lifted from the Beach Boys than it does to revive an old string stomp like ‘Boll Weevil‘ that plays later on in the album. Then there’s ‘I Blow It Off’ and I’m all like: what the fuck is this? The Byrds reunited? A new Brian Wilson song? Just over three minutes, it’s effervescence and agility, harmonies and quirkiness reminded me of a Beatles’ single.
As you will quickly learn, backwoods and front-porch picking never were the Punch Brothers’ thing, making it’s inclusion into my Twing-Twang classification a rather, well, difficult and dodgy one at best. You seem they’re happily urban sophisticates that makes leader Chris Thile‘s second group Nickel Creek appear to be purists, and the success of this album lies in how they cheerfully embrace the well-manicured sophistication that comes with the territory where the air is rarefied. The Punch Brothers sound as comfortable nimbly skipping through classical pieces as they do creating oddly shaped bluegrass-prog – and as they do creating sparkling pop miniatures like ‘Magnet‘ and ‘Between 1st and A‘. By both capturing and fusing these two sides, ‘The Phosphorescent Blues‘ stands as a defining record for an admittedly restless band.
It’s certainly an interesting listen; of the most original albums I have heard in a long time actually. As I’ve already eluded to, it seamlessly blends bluegrass, jazz, classical, pop and even hints at rock to produce a sound that is unlike anything I have heard before.