Punching Up
Punch Brothers Make the Year's First Great Record

We didn’t have to wait long for the first real disappointment of the year. But we also didn’t have to wait long for the first great record. As tradeoffs go, that’s not bad.

I’m talking about The Phosphorescent Blues, the fourth Punch Brothers LP. And if you know the Brothers, you know that isn’t a great surprise. De facto head Brother, Chris Thile, seems incapable of bad work, either on his own or with either of his combos. Last year, Thile issued an album of Bach sonatas and partitas performed brilliantly on mandolin, and rejoined lifelong friends Sara and Sean Watkins to reignite Nickel Creek. Their album A Dotted Line was one of the best of 2014, picking up the band’s bluegrass-trio-as-folk-pop-band sound as if they had never left.

As great as Nickel Creek is, Punch Brothers is something else entirely. It would be reductive to call them Thile’s rock band – they use a standard bluegrass lineup, with mandolin, guitar, banjo, fiddle and upright bass, and though they can play down-home twang with the best of them, this combo seems to be an ongoing experiment in eliminating musical barriers of any kind. Thile is a once-in-a-generation kind of musician, an absolute master of both his craft and his instrument, but this isn’t his show, not entirely. Punch Brothers is a true democracy, five people at similar levels of mastery, working as a democracy and seeing where they can go.

The answer, of course, is anywhere they want. Last time out, the Brothers courted a pop audience – Who’s Feeling Young Now broke them wider with clever pieces like “This Girl” and their cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A.” It was a fun record, charting a clear path. The Phosphorescent Blues takes a blowtorch to all of that. A sublimely confident piece of work, Blues is often even poppier than its predecessor, but it is also orders of magnitude more ambitious. This is an album that doesn’t care if you don’t like it. It does everything it can do to chase off casual fans and listeners – the first three songs are a 10-minute hook-free prog-grass epic, a five-minute meander that is at times almost inaudible, and an instrumental arrangement of a Debussy piece.

That is the band showing a huge amount of faith in their audience. Those expecting some high and lonesome pickin’ from this outfit are in for a shock, but those who have followed Thile and his muse down all his detours will find Phosphorescent to be a culmination point. Those first three tracks described above bring together many of the threads. Opener “Familiarity” is phenomenal, a three-part odyssey that climaxes in the middle. Its first half rises on Brian Wilson harmonies and meticulous arrangements, arcing ever upward as Thile sings his amens, finally pleading with the heavens: “God knows I mean it, God help me feel it…” The song’s second half quiets down, restating some of the same themes over more placid instrumentation as Thile admits he’s forgotten “how it feels to love something real,” but ends up willing anyway: “As long as you’re there I won’t be alone, a man alone among amens.”

Given the close listening required for those first three songs – particularly the lovely “Julep,” about a dead man remembering the good times – the sheer pop wonderment of the middle of the record is perhaps an even bigger shock. Drummer extraordinaire Jay Bellerose provides the first ever percussion on a Punch Brothers record, and his steady, subtle beat drives “I Blew It Off,” a tune with hit single potential. Producer T-Bone Burnett provides electric guitar fuzz on the choruses as Thile’s melody soars. It honestly sounds like the work of a different band entirely, and presages the next song, “Magnet,” a sex romp that explodes with Bellerose on the backbeat. “We’re pushing each other away,” Thile repeats as the band locks into a dynamite pop groove.

All this is before “My Oh My” and the traditional “Boll Weevil,” perhaps the most bluegrassy tunes here. “My Oh My” is a masterpiece, combining old-time harmonies and plucking with a fantastic, memorable melody. “How long, O lord, can you keep the world spinning under our thumbs,” Thile sings, lamenting our inability to appreciate what we have without trying to pin it down. “Boll Weevil,” at track seven, finally gives the bluegrass fans what they want, and it’s wonderful, leading into the more sedate final third.

And what a final third, driving the record home with beauty and grace. “Forgotten” may be the prettiest song in the band’s catalog, moving from dusty folk (with grand embellishments from Bellerose) to a straightforward mantra of reassurance: “Hey there, it’s all gonna be fine, you ain’t gonna die alone, you ain’t gonna be forgotten…” Banjo player Noam Pikelny and fiddle player Gabe Witcher intertwine their delicate lines, and the result is heart-stoppingly gorgeous. “Forgotten” sets the scene for the lovely final two tracks, the skipping “Between 1st and A” and the transcendent “Little Lights.” The latter incorporates a choir of Punch Brothers fans singing the final sentiment: “Shine little lights of ours, like Orion’s belt of stars, guide us back to where we are from where we want to be…”

The Phosphorescent Blues is a record of jaw-dropping musicianship and impeccable compositional skill that also remembers to be fun, and leaves you with deep reservoirs of feeling. In short, it’s everything you would want in a new album by one of the most impressive bands around. The cover of Phosphorescent is a painting called “The Lovers” by Rene Magritte, a Belgian artist known for challenging perceptions. It’s the perfect touchstone for a band committed to pushing against and ripping apart the idea of what a bluegrass band can be. They’re painting their own reality, with no boundaries, and it’s a joy to behold.

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While Phosphorescent is the first great album of the year, I’m more than willing to call Belle and Sebastian’s new one the first very good album – it beat the Brothers to the punch by about two weeks.

Next year is the 20th anniversary of this Scottish institution, and as if to celebrate their own reign, they’ve been on a serious roll lately. The last four Belle and Sebastian records have each built upon the last, evolving this sometimes-twee chamber-pop outfit’s sound into harder and brassier territory. Their new one – their ninth full-length – is called Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, and if you can think of a more Belle and Sebastian title for an album, I’m all ears. In many ways, this is the most Belle and Sebastian of their recent work as well, a record on which all of their evolutions are solidified and brought back home.

Opener “Nobody’s Empire” is what I’m talking about, a purely Belle and Sebastian kind of song. Its rich orchestration, simple chords, sweet melody and deceptively dark lyrics mark it as the work of this band and no other. (It’s actually about leader Stuart Murdoch’s struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome.) Throughout this record, Murdoch and company bring dance music influences to bear (most notably on the driving “The Party Line” and the dark, sprawling “Enter Sylvia Plath”) and do more with keyboards than with violins, but there’s an inescapable sense of the definitive here anyway. This is what Belle and Sebastian sounds like, at their most Belle and Sebastian.

That’s not all that makes this a really good record, the band’s best in some time, but it does make this one feel important, like a statement of identity. What’s fascinating is that they’ve stepped outside their comfort zone in a few interesting ways here, hiring a new producer (Ben H. Allen III) and diving down a few musical rabbit holes. The dance-y funk of “Perfect Couples,” the most ruefully funny thing here, steps into new territory, as does the multi-part semi-polka “The Everlasting Muse.” And yet, the album feels like classic B&S to me, like exactly what they would have done without any outside prompting.

Perhaps it’s that this album doesn’t reach for the same sugary pop heights as Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit. Songs like the string-laden (and political) “The Cat With the Cream” are patient odes, and numbers like “Ever Had a Little Faith” are classic Belle and Sebastian, pleasant and swaying. Girls in Peacetime aims for consistency, spreading its energy around equally, and the result doesn’t leave you with those few astonishing tunes (like “Step Into My Office, Baby” or “I Want the World to Stop”) but builds a 62-minute experience. So when you get to the seven-minute dance-pop windaround “Play for Today,” on which Murdoch and Sarah Miller spin twin tales, you’re ready for it – it doesn’t feel like a comedown, but another chapter.

Many are calling Girls in Peacetime a reinvention, the first time Belle and Sebastian have put their more danceable tendencies front and center, but I think that’s a superficial read of this record. The electronic elements seem to have energized the band, but in a way that finds them reaching back to what they truly are. “The Book of You,” for instance, is a lovable folksy tune with lines like “Valentine, if you could change with the weather, faith would just evaporate untethered.” Forget the buzzing synths and the pounding drums – listen to Miller sing “I’m the one for you and you’re the one for me,” before the whole thing goes nuts. That, right there? That is the sound of Belle and Sebastian, and on Girls in Peacetime, they’re in love with that sound once again.

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Next week, three reviews of Copeland’s Ixora. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.