Punch Brothers: All Ashore review – a thrilling marriage of head and heart
The inside sleeve of this eagerly awaited fifth album from Punch Brothers, the American roots quintet, features the five members posing like G-man extras from an X-Files episode. Serious faces, shirts and ties are set in stark bleached monochrome against a grey sky. This formal look has long been their little visual joke, as if to say don’t judge a band by its blazer. Or, we might look neat and tidy, but our music is a ragamuffin’s feast of sharp turns, unlikely progressions and delicious quirky melody.
This collection follows on from 2015’s exceptional The Phosphorescent Blues, a record of dazzling invention that showcased their ability to transcend defined genre and create a sound fusing bluegrass, jazz, classical and even pop. All five have impressive bluegrass credentials, not least the mandolinist and singer Chris Thile, who first came to attention when the progressive acoustic band Nickel Creek broke through in 2000. Now 37, he has since released many solo efforts as well as playing with the likes of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. In 2015 he released Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol 1, a transcription of JS Bach’s work for violin to mandolin. In 2016 he succeeded Garrison Keillor as host of the iconic US radio programme A Prairie Home Companion.
The other Punch Brothers, Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (double bass), while not Renaissance men to equal their ostensible leader, are all noted bluegrass players with impressive track records and solo projects. In other words they are not just bit players in Thile’s musical odyssey. This sense of common purpose is key. It is no accident that song credits are shared or that they jointly produced All Ashore. They all have their moments in the sun, and some more than others, but their thrilling playing always serves the song or the tune. This marriage of flair and discipline informs each track: there are no wasted notes or silences.
Punch Brothers: It’s All Part of the Plan
Punch Brothers: Three Dots and a Dash
Thile has said the new album is “a meditation on committed relationships in the present day, particularly in the present climate . . . We were hoping to create something that would be convincing as a complete thought, in this case as a nine-movement, or nine-piece, thought – though it’s rangy in what it’s talking about, and in the characters who are doing the talking.”
The characters include the orange man. Just Look at This Mess is a worthy addition to the burgeoning corpus of songs inspired by Donald Trump. “Just look at this mess I’ve made in the thick of it / I like it like this but I’d never tell you that / Cause I lie like the colours of the rainbow.” It’s a gorgeous melody, and Thile’s vocal is just the right side of sleazy. The song is broken into two parts; the second finds Thile, supported in brotherly harmony, resisting the “Trump” message. A second Trumpian ode, It’s All Part of the Plan, is playful but more obvious, while the jaunty Jumbo savages the Republican Party with sharp satirical cuts delivered with relish against a barbershop backdrop.
The title track, The Angel of Doubt and Like It’s Going Out of Style muse on more personal politics, anxiety and fidelity, while the reflective ballad The Gardener considers nature’s lessons.
There are two instrumentals, both named after tiki cocktails, the complex Jungle Bird and the softer Three Dots and a Dash. They represent the band’s twin drivers, the head and the heart; it is Punch Brothers’ ability to strike an endlessly fascinating conversation between the two that makes them among the greatest exponents of acoustic music around today.