I was first introduced to Punch Brothers by Jamie Cullum on his BBC Radio 2 Jazz show last year. Their latest album, All Ashore, provides much that delights and rewards the listener. In particular, it rewards Actual Listening(TM), that is, going somewhere quiet and purely focusing on the music, rather than merely using the music as a whitewashed backdrop to work, cooking or commuting.
Bluegrass, refined to perfection
The music would be considered ‘bluegrass’, a mixture of folk, jazz, blues and country that feels quintessentially American. Certainly the instrumentation – which is an astonishingly skilled but restrained quintet playing; mandolin, guitar, banjo, violin and the double bass – gives the album a countrified air. There’s no percussion, but the percussive quality of the banjo and guitar balanced with the bass help to drive the momentum forward when required.
Though I’m not especially clued up on the bluegrass scene, the group is regularly described as an all-star cast of musicians, with Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile – a virtuosic mandolin player himself – starting the group in 2006. However, one doesn’t need to be clued up to recognise musical beauty when it slaps you in the face!
The music itself flows in a serene, gentle manner with an occasional genre-defying turn, such as in ‘The Angel of Doubt’, where the so-called angel drops a spoken-word / rap at around three minutes in, but with a beautiful acoustic quality that feels a little like something that might emerge in an acoustic version of Hamilton.
A suite meditating on modern relationships
According to Punch Brothers, All Ashore is a nine-piece suite, ‘a meditation on committed relationships in the present day, particularly in the present climate.’ It’s true, the album does take you on a journey, the songs slotting seamlessly into one another. The lyrics are always intelligent, often amusing, and sometimes challenging. Lines such as the following, from the title track —
As Momma rises and Daddy sets
Just like they have since the night I met them
— add mystery and intrigue, forcing you to engage and ask questions of the song and its purpose.
Everything about Punch Brothers feels careful and deliberate, right down to their choice of name. Taken from Mark Twain’s short story, “A Literary Nightmare” (later retitled to “Punch, Brothers, Punch”), the story is about an infectious rhyme that Twain couldn’t get out of his head until he had passed the viral poem on to someone else.
All Shore is an album that rarely reaches excessive dynamic peaks, instead using the musician’s dexterity and drawing out different instrumental timbres to bring texture and balance across each song. The vocals sit well, deftly woven into the gently woven tapestry of the album — integral to the music and delightful in all sorts of clever turns of phrase, but never overbearing.
Punch Brothers are a group I would love to see live if they ever come to London, and All Ashore is an album that I will enjoy listening to for a long time to come. Highly recommended.