In Brief: Thile is a frickin’ prodigy, and his bandmates are similarly high-caliber. This album is great art, and it’s actually fun to listen to as well.
The Punch Brothers have a pretty clear goal in mind for their band. It’s to make “non-bluegrass” music with bluegrass instrumentation. Sure, from time to time a more traditional, bluegrassy sort of tune slips in there. The history of a collective of musicians can’t help but assert itself into their present. But far more often, they’re off on unusual tangents, exploring jazzy and sometimes avant-garde improvisation, covering their favorite indie rock bands (usually Radiohead), or even surprising the listener with a relatively straightforward, happy-go-lucky pop song. If this sounds strange, that’s because it is. It’s bound to irritate a lot of fans of traditional bluegrass, probably about ten times as much as Chris Thile‘s old band Nickel Creek did.
Honestly, for a while there, it even irritated me. Still reeling from Nickel Creek’s breakup, I tried to get into each member’s solo projects, only to find that Chris had gone a bit off the deep end. His last “solo” record, 2006’s How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, had its inspired moments and its off-the-wall experiments that just plain didn’t work, but it formed the foundation for a band that he apparently felt was worthy of eclipsing his own moniker, and thus the Punch Brothers were formed. 2008’s Punch was their proper debut, and let me tell you, I did not get that record. AT. ALL. It seemed like four endlessly meandering tracks of Chris whining about his divorce while trying to write some sort of atonal jazz symphony or… something, with four more tracks on the fringes that just made me go WTF in general. I didn’t even know they had survived to put out a few more records until Who’s Feeling Young Now? dropped earlier this year. Skeptical, but curious, I gave it a listen. And this was where I found out that the band had matured in a way that allowed actual songs with somewhat more definitive melodies to take precedence, but that didn’t take the spotlight off of the ridiculous level of talent displayed by each member of the group on his respective stringed instrument.
For those who are brand new to the band, the stringed instruments in question are: Mandolin (Mr. Thile, who capably leads the band but also knows when to get out of the way), fiddle (Gabe Witcher), banjo (Noam Pikelny), acoustic guitar (Chris Eldridge), and upright bass (Paul Kowert). It’s more or less the same instrumental configuration as Nickel Creek’s live shows, minus the female vocals, plus a banjo (fans of “Ode to a Butterfly”, take note) and a heavy dose of snark. When Thile and his buddies aren’t waxing poetic about abstract concepts or taking an instrumental segue wherever it goes, they’re actually quite down to Earth, even humorous at times, as they explore topics such as relationships and stardom from the same “charming cad” angle that gave us a few of the Creek’s classic such as “Can’t Complain” and “Helena”. They have their sincere moments, too, but to really enjoy this album, you’ll have to learn where Thile (and Gabe Witcher, who takes the mic for one song) is playing the sort of role that he hopes you’ll root against.
What truly surprises me about Who’s Feeling Young Now? is that it isn’t just one of those records where I love a few tracks and sort of have to respect the rest from a distance. Take a record like Punch, and I can’t seriously tell you that it’s bad art or anything – it’s just the kind of creative endeavor that doesn’t leave a lot of entry points open for a listener trying to get up to speed. Young is warm and welcoming with those moments, striking a better balance between the times when it wants to challenge the listener and the times when it just wants to jam on its instruments and have a good time. There might still be one or two tracks that lose me amidst their quieter meanderings, but nothing so distracting that I get bored with the record. Young‘s biggest weakness might be that it throws a lot of ideas out there just to see what sticks, and doesn’t really aim for much in the way of cohesion. The use of the same five instruments and only those instruments helps to give it continuity, but most of the songs don’t seem to lead into one another or inform one another’s stories in any tangible way. So you’ll get a fast-paced jam with the fingers plying wedged up against a bizarre left-field Radiohead cover (Thile’s been doing that for about ten years now), which is right next to a goofy love song. It’s just a solid showcase of what these guys can do. And the bulk of it has me convinced that these guys have the potential to dethrone Nickel Creek from the top of my “Best Concerts Ever!” list, should I get the chance to see them live.
1. Movement and Location
This track honestly floored me upon first listen. It was the one to prove to me that the band had learned how to challenge themselves without coming across to the listener as exceptionally difficult. It pulsates with a strong rhythm, almost as if the band is reinterpreting some sort of long-lost dance track, with the banjo and violin anchoring the piece to a single, relentless note as the bass and guitar provide a serpentine melody and the mandolin drifts back and forth between playing a part in this tightly wound unit and meandering off into its own little world. Other players follow suit here and there with the melodic wanderings, but just when you think the piece is about to lose bearings, they snap back to the song’s assertive rhythm. The lyrics, apparently inspired by the philosophy of a baseball pitcher, are incredibly abstract, and the way that Thile croons them, with their odd melodies reaching for unexpected high notes, reminds me of Thom Yorke on some of Radiohead’s more recent material. Genre-wise, I really don’t know how one would classify this – and that’s just a small part of what I love so much about it.
2. This Girl
God and girls are probably two of the most frequent subjects of folk songs. Sometimes they’re combined into a single song. Often uncomfortably, at least from my perspective. But every now and then you get one like this that’s so goofy, you just can’t help but smile. As Thile pines for the affection of some girl who has managed to steal his heart, offering up his wish in the form of a prayer from a rusty backslider who hasn’t talked to God in ages, those who would take a song like this seriously and expect theological correctness from it are likely to come up short. In Chris’s most happy-go-lucky, pop-song voice, he all but apologizes for seeming like an annoying kid tugging at God’s shirttails for attention, and promises never to bother God again if just this one prayer could be answered. See, I don’t think this is how God works – I figure He loves to hear even the repetitive and shallow prayers ’cause we’ve all gotta start somewhere – but I know this is all just for grins, so I’m not gonna worry too much about it. The mandolin and banjo, with their up-tempo, syncopated rhythm, give us one of the catchiest melodies on the album, and shoot, this one could potentially be a country radio single if it weren’t so darn irreverent.
3. No Concern of Yours
Pikelny’s banjo is the lead instrument here, which I didn’t notice at first because the first minute or so of the song seems unusually hushed and obfuscated given the brisk pace of the song. It gets plenty loud and busy further in, but the result is a track that teeters on the edge between mellow and furious, and so I’m not really sure what to make of it at times. Its winding melody is the one consistent thing about it – not entirely predictable, but flowing steadily like a refreshing stream, giving the song more of a graceful motion than the previous tracks. The lyrics are a total mystery to me – Thile seems to be cautioning someone to keep their distance and not get involved in his problems, but the hints he offers about those problems are enough to make anyone sufficiently curious just ask more questions: “We’re not here to talk about me/We’re here to get things done/’Cause if we do, my daddy won’t have ruined both his sons/He’s going down.” Careful stepping into that stream – there’s one hell of an undertow.
4. Who’s Feeling Young Now?
The title track is one of the album’s most brazen, hitting the listener hard and fast with its stop-and-go mandolin/guitar riff and its sassy bass line. (This is honestly one of the best songs for Kowert to strut his stuff on the old upright. Witcher really gets to tear it up on the fiddle, too.) The song is sort of intentionally arrogant, as if it’s trying to expose the hubris of a young performer who thinks he can change his habits or his entire identity at the drop of a hat. It plays out like a witty rebuttal to an old-timer who has told this young hotshot he’s on the fast track to an early demise, though Thile’s lyrics are open-ended enough that the actual meaning is sort of up-for grabs here. I’m amused by the tongue-twisting lyrics: “They try to tell us, and at times we try to listen/But we can’t hear a thing when all we think about are all the things we think we might be missing/’Cause if we think we are, we are/And if we don’t, we aren’t worth the time it takes to think of making love with who we’re kissing.” Phew! A late-song reference to Icarus also leads me to believe the protagonist is quietly aware of his own impending fall from grace, but too proud to admit to it and change course. Given that Thile’s been renowned as a hotshot on the mandolin since before he was old enough to drive, one wonders if this song isn’t more than a bit autobiographical. It’s because the cocky attitude of this song is apparently being played for laughs that I enjoy it so darn much.
This is one song that still manages to elude me. It starts off with what seems like it’s gonna be another happy, skippy mandolin-and-banjo melody, but then it dives into an unusually soft verse and the melody seems to insist on constantly turning these odd corners. What reads like a sweet song from a man to his daughter, urging her to go back to bed and not worry about mommy and daddy fighting, seems to be at war with itself, as Chris’s sweet crooning gradually morphs into urgent yelping and the chords get more jagged and insistent. Sections of the song feel structured (especially the bridge, which almost feels dropped in from another song with its curious refrain of “Your eyes are not a window”), but most of it feels all over the place, and the lack of a clear hook to return to ends up hurting the song a bit. I suppose it’s meant to communicate a man’s inner turmoil, but this might be one case where studying the song is more interesting than actually listening to it (which thankfully is not a common problem on this album).
6. Flippen (The Flip)
What’s this? A somewhat traditional bluegrass instrumental? Man, you could wedge this one into Nickel Creek’s first album and I’d honestly never notice. Strangely enough, it isn’t an original composition by Thile, but a cover of a Swedish folk band by the name of Väsen (quite possibly an early influence on Thile, given how long the group’s been around). Listening to the fiddle and mandolin and acoustic guitar (Eldridge gets one of his best solos here) chase each other around reminds me of those innocent days when Thile and his old bandmates would do this – see “Smoothie Song” or “Robin and Marian”. This blast from the past is at once comforting and jarring, since it doesn’t really fit into the album but it is a great display of raw instrumental talent that shows both unity and individuality among the group members.
7. Patchwork Girlfriend
This weird, drunken song seems to stumble all over itself first, with the bass wobbling back and forth like a sailor who hasn’t yet found his sea legs, and the other instruments wandering off into their various abstractions before Thile’s vocals show up to reign everything in. This is the most audacious – and if you’re in the right mood, hilarious – song on the album, since it approaches the subject of relationships as if a guy could just pick and choose all the aspects of different women that he likes and cobble them together into a single, ideal mate. Sounds like just the sort of thing a recently dumped or divorced fellow would cook up after one too many shots at the bar, doesn’t it? Fortunately, the sheer absurdity of it works in the song’s favor, as the various attributes of her appearance and personality are described in clearly paradoxical ways – her hair is blondish and blackish, she draws him close with one arm while keeping him at a distance with the other, etc. The music matches the zany mood, at times mirroring the bounciness of “This Girl”, while also leaving space for Thile’s off-kilter soloing. In case you made it most of the way through the song without realizing it was a joke, they even throw you a bone by pointing out the flaw in this Frankenstein-like scenario – “But that’d be against the law… even in Utah.” (OK, so they might want to scratch this one from the setlist they next time they play a gig in Salt Lake City.)
8. Hundred Dollars
Here’s where Gabe Witcher takes the mic, his voice a shade darker than Thile’s, which is perfect for a song with another excellent stop-start riff that shows off a slight bit of blues influence as he waxes bitterly poetic about some heartless city girl. “No! No! Body’s warmer to the touch than hers/But you’ll never know! Know! Anything as cold as the heart of a city girl”, the guys warn us in striking unison, not long after Witcher has concluded that the whole relationship was a cold transaction and the pleasure he once derived from making her happy, he now derives from the possibility of finding out she has any emotions at all: “Oh, would you wonder why/If I paid a hundred dollars for the chance to see you cry/And a hundred more to see you cry again.” Finding out after the fact that this song was co-written by fellow Americana aficionado Josh Ritter only increased my love for it, since Ritter is the kind of songwriter could probably write intriguing turns of phrase in his sleep. Leave some room in the middle eight for a tasty bass solo and for Thile to pop in and help finish up Witcher’s bridge, and you’ve got a wonderful collaboration between all six of the men involved. Even if it’s kinda cruel.
9. Soon or Never
The slow, violin-heavy melody of this song has a sweet but sad sort of grandeur to it – Witcher’s performance here easily reminds me of Sara Watkins in similar Nickel Creek ballads such as “Jealous of the Moon” or “Why Should the Fire Die?” The lyrics here are short and sweet, but parceled out slowly, putting the focus largely on a subdued but beautiful performance by the entire band. Once this one really opens up, it’s stunning, even if it seems to take a while to get there. It’s one of those songs that seems simple and yet there are garceful touches of complexity to it, and this is echoed in the seemingly self-contradictory lyrics: “If ever I have seen your lips move/And known you couldn’t say/The words I think could make me love you/And heard them anyway/Then I have not been/I have not been in love.” It may well be the most sincere moment on the entire album.
10. New York City
This song takes off in a sudden fury of fiddle and banjo – quite a mood shift after “Soon or Never”. This is the second song that was co-written by Josh Ritter – and it’s taken me a bit longer to dig into it and try to unravel it, but I’ve definitely found it fun to listen to. The fast pace and nimble-fingered picking may be a bit of a bone thrown to the more traditional bluegrass enthusiasts, though the song’s not without its experimental edge. If “This Girl” was a prayer to God to let him get the girl, then this song is Thile’s prayer to a vast, snowbound city for the same – “New York City, would you give her to me? I’d be yours forever.” I can only imagine that this song is physically taxing for the band to play live, given how quickly all fifty fingers seem to be flying up and down their frets. But I bet it’s also a lot of fun for them.
11. Kid A
Covering your favorite alternative or indie bands is one thing. Radiohead’s been covered to death in the indie rock world these days, and as I mentioned above, Thile’s been one of the people doing it most frequently. I can definitely name more Radiohead songs covered either by Punch Brothers or by Nickel Creek that I can count on one hand. But this is the first one to make it to an album, and it demonstrates why Thile can still get away with something that would otherwise feel like a bit of a cliche. The title track from Kid A is probably one of Radiohead’s most detached and alienating songs, being the unsettling electronic lullaby that it is, and while the Brothers faithfully recreate nearly every note and beat of it, it’s interesting how they manage to make its wandering melody and its ambient, tuneless passages come to life by scraping and thumping on their instruments in ways they probably weren’t built for. While the original had extremely digitized vocals, this version has none at all, instead using Witcher’s fiddle as the “voice” of the song. It sounds nothing like anything else on the album, and it’s even a far cry from the band’s other Radiohead covers, but it’s the one they commit to most fully, and so I’m glad to have it available as a studio recording instead of just a concert bootleg or something.
12. Don’t Get Married Without Me
We end here on a whimsical note, with sudden, jerky chords from the mandolin (I mean jerky in the sense of their sudden movements, not that the guy playing them is a jerk) and the violin flitting about like an excited hummingbird. Thile is back in peppy schoolboy mode here, his eager voice navigating the weird rhythmic shifts and numerous key changes that the melody of this song has to endure, all to ensure his lover that she’s not fooling anyone with her aloof behavior and the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship. In a way, he uses all of his witticisms and piercing observations to set her free, telling her she can fool around all she wants but they both know they’re meant for each other. Hence the titular promise: “Help yourself to whatever you like with whomever you like/But don’t get married without me.” It’s certainly a strange sentiment to end an album with, but in a way, that’s what all of Who’s Feeling Young Now? has been about: The ridiculous, impulsive things we do when we’re young and in lust/love, and our attempts, however feeble, to let cooler heads prevail and figure out what our hearts really want once the dust has settled.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Movement and Location $2
This Girl $1.25
No Concern of Yours $1
Who’s Feeling Young Now? $2
Flippen (The Flip) $1
Patchwork Girlfriend $1.25
Hundred Dollars $1.75
Soon or Never $.75
New York City $1
Kid A $1.50
Don’t Get Married Without Me $1
Chris Thile: Mandolin, lead vocals
Gabe Witcher: Fiddle, vocals
Noam Pikelny: Banjo, vocals
Chris Eldridge: Guitar, vocals
Paul Kowert: Bass, vocals
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Originally published on Epinions.com.