The Punch Brothers - Who's Feeling Young Now?


Rarely has an album caused me as much ear-stretching and deliberation as Who's Feeling Young Now?. It took me several spins merely to begin to wrap my head around the music. The last time I heard anything with as many new musical ideas I was fifteen and I was trying to digest Gary Burton's Duster album (the first jazz album I had ever purchased.)

The Punch Brothers roster consists of five musicians, all of whom were considered child prodigies earlier in their careers. Chris Thile plays mandolin, Chris Eldridge plays guitar, Noam Pikelny plays banjo, Gabe Witcher play fiddle and Paul Cowert plays acoustic bass. With eleven original tunes, all credited to the entire band, and one cover - Radiohead's "Kid A," the music is primarily acoustic, with only an occasional electric guitar far in the background of the mix. But what genre is the music? Although the instrumental line-up is trad bluegrass, the music is anything but. The closest thing to roots music you'll find on Who's Feeling Young Now? is the instrumental "Flippin (The Flip)." It features a Celtic-flavored lead line that twists and turns with attention-grabbing frequency while it meanders towards its finale. What's interesting is while the tune begins as an upbeat fiddle tune it soon takes a left turn into what could almost qualify as Windham Hill musical vagueness before finally righting itself though a solo acoustic guitar section and attacking the opening theme once more.

As someone who routinely records entire symphony orchestras with only one stereo pair of microphones, the evolution of The Punch Brothers' recording techniques should be a disappointment, but it's not. Their first album, Punch Was recorded around a pair of stereo mics in a classical recording venue and the sound was simply superb - dimensional, dynamic and delicate. Their second album, Antifogmatic, included some recordings that used multiple microphones mixed among those that employed the purist approach of the first album. On Who's Feeling Young Now? the minimalist approach was completely abandoned for pop-rock recording techniques. In one photograph from the recording session I can see five microphones set up for Chris Thile alone. And why isn't the proliferation of microphones a giant step back in sound? Because this "modern" recording technique works for new music, and the final results are sonically articulate and surprisingly dimensional.

During the course of three albums The Punch Brothers has evolved from a neo-traditionalist acoustic ensemble into a modern music group, and their recording methodology has morphed from pure acoustic into a synthesis of natural and artificial sounds. On "No Concern of Yours" the banjo on the left side of the mix has a long artificial reverb trail on the right channel that functions as an ambient background for the rhythmic core of the tune. You simply can't do this without some form of artificial acoustic treatment. On the opening cut, "Movement and Location," the band builds up a virtual rhythmic wall of acoustic instruments that draws as much influence from trance and house music as it does bluegrass. At 1:20  an amazing transition happens - Chris Thile, who is among the most accurate rhythm players ever to hold a mandolin, begins to purposely play out of rhythm while the bass fights hard to hold the original beat. In traditional music no one EVER plays purposely out of rhythm. The band finally comes back in rhythm at 3:40 with majestic ferocity.

After ten days of listening to the album almost daily I'm beginning to understand it. To call Who's Feeling Young Now?  the most interesting and potentially influential album of 2012 may be a bit of a stretch, but not much. Music like this makes me excited to wake up in the morning...

And for you vinyl junkies - there's an LP version... 

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