Last week I discussed Between the Buried and Me, a band so complex that even some people I know who gravitate toward musicianship as an end in itself find them daunting. In retrospect, I should have saved them for this week’s column, to provide contrast.
I used to believe that complexity automatically meant quality, and that because you can write a 30-minute suite with 12 sections labeled with Roman numerals, that makes you better than bands who can’t do that. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve started more and more sentences with “but as I’ve grown older.” I’ve also come to appreciate simplicity as an ideal. I still get annoyed when I hear those same four generic chords being used again and again, but I have grown to love simple songs performed in simple ways.
Here’s a case in point: my blind fascination with all kinds of technical metal music led me to miss out on punk entirely. I was in my 20s before I heard the Clash, or the Ramones, or the Sex Pistols, and I frankly dismissed a lot of what they had to offer. Green Day was one of the first punk-ish bands I really listened to (I know, the shame), and by that time the entire idea of punk had been co-opted and commodified. What I didn’t understand then was that punk, as a movement, was partially about the democratization of music. It was a reaction to the notion that musical education (which is, historically, reserved for the rich) is necessary to be a musician, and a refutation of prog rock and all it stood for.
Of course, I love me some prog rock, but do I still think chops are the most important element in determining a band’s worth? Nah. Last night I went to see Aimee Mann play a free show in downtown Chicago. She’s great – she’s a tremendous songwriter, one of my very favorites, and a strong singer and performer. Did she do anything on stage last night that made me think she could out-play John Petrucci? Or even some of the guitar players I know personally? Nope. Mann writes straightforward, strummable folk-rock songs. But they’re genius.
I’m almost ashamed to admit this one as well, but one of the first sorta-kinda-punk bands I got into was MxPx. I first gravitated toward them because they were sold in Bibles, Books and Things, the Christian bookstore near my home in Massachusetts. This is because they were on Tooth and Nail Records, which made its name selling edgier bands to Christian kids who couldn’t stand Petra. I was, at the time, really into anything I could find at Bibles, Books and Things, so I loved Life in General, the band’s third album, and I’ve stuck with them.
I’m so loyal that I Kickstarted their new self-titled album several months ago, and when it arrived all shiny in my inbox a couple weeks ago, I confirmed something I had long suspected: I am never going to hate this band. In a very general way, all of their songs sound the same – they’re loud, fast and melodic, the very definition of pop-punk. And it took a lot of Bad Religion records to come to the realization that the sameness isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. MxPx has been playing in the same sandbox for more than 25 years, and they don’t leave it on this new album.
But what we have here is 11 fast, fun, hummable tunes, and I like every one of them. This album is in and out in 30 minutes, which is about the right length for a pop-punk record anyway, and in this case leaves me wanting more. As befits a self-titled record a quarter-century into their run, MxPx is about looking back at how far the band has come, and in doing so they seem to have captured some of the fire they played with in their early days. Quick opener “Rolling Strong,” standout “Let’s Ride,” “Uptown Streets” (which sports my favorite guitar riff here), “20/20 Hindsight,” “The Way We Do,” and on and on – these are tunes dripping with nostalgia, and with pride.
And yes, this breaks no new ground whatsoever. Mike Herrera still sounds like a bratty 17-year-old. (He’s 41 now.) Yuri Riley still plays the drums like he’s outrunning a train. Everything sounds exactly as you remember it, if you remember MxPx. This should be a detriment. I should be expecting a band on its 12th album to try new things, go new places. But I don’t care. I’m really enjoying this album, as I have every MxPx album I’ve heard since I was 17. No shame. This is just fun.
If you were to put Punch Brothers on the absolute other end of the musical spectrum, I’d be hard pressed to disagree. Where MxPx is loud and brash, Chris Thile’s prog-grass outfit is quiet and considered. The MxPx boys can certainly play, but they’re not virtuosos by any stretch of the imagination. Meanwhile the five Brothers are all masters at their instruments – Thile is a once-in-a-generation kind of player, and he’s somehow found a band that doesn’t feel like his backup dancers. They match him perfectly. While Mike Herrera would probably be kicked out of Lake Woebegone, Thile has been hosting A Prairie Home Companion for years now. (It’s called Live From Here now, but it’s the same show.)
So what could they possibly have in common? Like MxPx, Punch Brothers break no new ground on their new album,All Ashore. It’s their fifth, and by now the quintet’s sound is well established – they use the traditional bluegrass lineup of mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo and bass to create complex musical excursions, and the occasional killer pop song. Last time out, on an album called The Phosphorescent Blues, the Brothers debuted drums and percussion, pushing their sound to new places, but here they return to the traditional instrumentation they’re known for.
And if you need further proof that you don’t need to innovate to create fantastic music, this record should do it. These nine songs are simply wonderful. They’re all originals, and two of them are complex instrumentals, while the rest find Thile in fine voice, his twisty lyrics telling tales of an America in pain. The seven-minute title track sets the tone well, spinning a story of a family falling to pieces with a delicate eye for detail. Thile gives himself a vocal workout on “The Angel of Doubt,” on which his whisper cuts through the silence and his swaying sing-speak final verse comes closer to rap than he ever has. And on “Just Look at This Mess” the band embraces a gorgeous sense of dynamics, moving from sparse to sweeping in five minutes.
If you’re a fan of this band, there’s nothing on All Ashore you haven’t heard before. “Jumbo” is the down-home bluegrass one, this time with a political bent. “The Gardener” is the slow one with the beautiful harmonies. “Three Dots and a Dash” is the workout, the five Brothers circling around each other, fingers flailing. “It’s All Part of the Plan” is the single, and the most hummable one. This falls into familiar patterns, but you won’t care. Just listen to these arrangements, to the way that each instrument finds it space, then makes room. Listen to how astonishing the playing is on “Jungle Bird,” how natural the build is on “Mess,” how typically extraordinary every element of the closer “Like It’s Going Out of Style” is.
Every bit of All Ashore is thoughtfully considered, every moment carefully crafted to showcase what this band does. That they don’t do anything new is in no way a detriment. There is no other band like this one, and if we’ve heard everything they’re capable of, and the next dozen Punch Brothers records sound exactly like this one, I won’t be upset or disappointed. You don’t need to break new ground to build, and they’ve built something wonderful here.
Next week, I’m in Nashville to see the Prayer Chain reunite after more than 20 years. Believe me that I’m going to write about that. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.