Album Review: ‘Who’s Feeling Young Now?’ by Punch Brothers

This summer, a friend of mine turned me on to these guys in an “Avett Brothers/Punch Brothers bluegrass-nerd compilation mix exchange,” and I’ve been hooked on this band ever since.  Bluegrass doesn’t quite describe it; neither does neo-classical or folk.  They are a string quintet like no other, weaving complex, frenetic tangents of dissonance and thrilling dynamics transcending genrefication.  Admittedly disconcerting at first, they get better and better with each listen.  They’re like ear pilates, hurting at first but forcing me to become more and more flexible until I’m exhilarated and can’t imagine my life without them.  (*At least, that’s how I think I’d feel about pilates if I ever stopped geeking out on bands and went to the gym.*)

I feel that my vague/failed attempt at playing the mandolin last year lends me just one tiny shred of justifiability in my worship at the shrine of frontman Chris Thile.  Besides being a total dreamboat and a mandolin virtuoso (see also: the Goat Rodeo sessions with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Edward Meyer and Stuart Duncan), he’s an insanely talented singer and songwriter.  He makes good use of his delicate pipes, with thin, tight often-falsetto harmonies, accompanied by equally talented and/or dreamy dudes on upright bass, fiddle, guitar, and banjo.

Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the band’s third release, is an absolute marvel.  I’d like to alternatively title it “Who Needs Drummers and Electricity Anyway?”  The opener, “Movement and Location,” pulls in some amazing hooks and winds around surprisingly poppy twists and turns.  There’s a great variety within the tracks, at times traditional bluegrass folk jams like the instrumental “Flippen (the Flip),” others incorporating complex elements of jazz, R&B, and soul.  “Hundred Dollars,” their bittersweet diatribe against city girls (“are all the same/they play you like a pinball game”), I will argue, sounds downright Justin Timberlake-y, but with a twangy twist.

Punch Brothers – Hundred Dollars

There’s something distinctly tongue-in-cheek and playfully farcical about their lyrics, but there are soft tender moments, too.  Sometimes I want to curl up in bed with Thile and stroke his hair and soothe his hurt feelings (“Clara”), other times I’ll want to flirt indignantly, and hands-on-hips hurt his feelings back in hopes he’ll notice me (see: “Patchwork Girlfriend”).

Other highlights include an eerily accurate acoustic “Kid A” cover that knocked my socks off, and “Don’t’ Get Married Without Me,” from which I’ll quote my favorite lyrics of the whole album: “Let’s not fool ourselves/’cause we aren’t cowards/we aren’t liars/we’re just two people who are not in love right now.  Let’s not fool ourselves/’cause taking a break is checking out a breakup too long/Help yourself to whatever you like with whomever you like/but don’t get married without me.”

I predict that Punch Brothers are about to blow up in the mainstream in 2012, and I am all for them getting well-deserved recognition for bringing quality acoustic musicianship to the masses.  I cannot wait to see them this Thursday, March 1st at the Park West in Chicago.

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