When people ask me what my favorite band is, I don’t have to think about my response. It’s Punch Brothers. The immediate followup question is usually some variant of, “I haven’t heard of them. What kind of music do they make?” It’s at this point that I always falter. I can rattle off the band’s entire history with ease, but I struggle to describe just what the group does.
The Brooklyn-based quintet is all traditional bluegrass instrumentation: banjo, fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar and double bass. Despite its members’ deep roots in bluegrass music, Punch Brothers has never been a true bluegrass band. You can see it in the array of artists it’s covered. The band has tackled the likes of Bach, The Stanley Brothers, Of Montreal, The Carter Family, The Strokes, The Beatles and, above all, Radiohead, with ease.
None of the band’s other albums have been distinctly bluegrass records and on its latest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the band shows once and for all that it is definitely not a bluegrass outfit. Punch Brothers can finally prove itself as something far beyond any label, moving into exciting, uncharted musical territory.
Take, for example, the record’s first track, “Movement and Location.” Immediately listeners notice something new to Punch Brothers: reverb. It’s not exactly an element you’d expect on an acoustic record. The sound and feel of the record is completely different from anything else Punch Brothers has done. While its 2010 record Antifogmatic sounded close and intimate, the sound on Who’s Feeling Young Now? is closer to what a listener would get sitting in an empty auditorium while the band played onstage. It’s a big sound, too expansive to be done justice by laptop speakers or mediocre headphones.
The band has grown in its songwriting styles, too. The title track could easily be a standard rock ‘n’ roll song with some instrument adjustments. “Patchwork Girlfriend” has a dark tango twinge to it, while tracks like “This Girl” and “Don’t Get Married Without Me” smack of pop. None of these elements have been so explicit in Punch Brothers’ earlier work. The band used to come off as a folk outfit that included slight hints of other genres, but now it’s obviously shedding all ideas of fitting under any particular label.
With all this being said: why isn’t Punch Brothers just another folk rock band? Commercially speaking, the band could probably do just as well, if not better, if it added a drum kit or an electric guitar. Just look at Mumford & Sons or The Avett Brothers, both of whom have found immense success among American audiences with their watered-down versions of roots and bluegrass music. Each member is certainly talented enough that it wouldn’t be hard for them to go electric.
But that’s not what makes Punch Brothers great. What makes it great is that what you see doesn’t mean anything when it comes to what you hear. No longer is a banjo restricted to the likes of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” nor is a mandolin confined to re-tweaking Bill Monroe tunes. These men have proven that instruments can be manipulated to so much more than what we take them at face value.
There’s a lesson here, though it’s a little cliché. Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a band solely by its appearance. You might be in for a refreshing surprise.
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