CD Review: Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now (Nonesuch)

By Brian Arsenault

Punch Brothers’ new album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, starts so strong. Poetic intelligent lyrics, deeply felt but restrained feelings in the vocals, especially strong fiddle playing by Gabe Witcher. In a time of computer beeps and annoying bongs and chirps of everything from coffee makers to cars to hip hop, there is a purity of rounded sound here that is as comfortable as old sneakers and jeans.

Punch Brothers

“Movement and Location” opens the album with all the fine qualities mentioned above.  “This Girl” follows with an electric pace carried by stringed instruments. The song’s a prayer for love and favor, or the favor of love.  Who does that? Asks for it, yes, but prays for it? Today? Not many in popular music outside of the Christian genre.

The song says “Gods ought to know how little to expect of people,” but the gods and me expected a lot of this band.

And I kept expecting a great deal right through “No Concern of Yours,” where the poetry is up to a Paul Simon standard:

A word can break as easy as it’s spoken, snarled or sworn.”

And Jimmy Paige could play guitar on an electric cover of the title song, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”

But then I began to consider that maybe these guys just lost their amps.  But no, they are a self proclaimed bluegrass band.  And just as I have felt at every bluegrass concert I have ever attended, no matter the quality of the musicians, it’s just . . . well . . . like the amazing Gary Oldman character in The Professional says of his idol Beethoven — that after those amazing beginnings, he does tend to get just a little bit boring. Or words to that effect.

It could be it’s nothing more than my need for percussion, somewhere, somehow.  I admit it’s a prejudice but it’s a good one, don’t you think?  Even a snare drum. Just a little.  But this is bluegrass, so maybe I don’t have a legitimate complaint.

The songs  seem to sound a lot alike musically and lyrically. And I can only take so much “can’t find love” stuff. Or is it that they can’t sustain love? Or a relationship.  Is this a Woody Allen movie?

By the time we get to “Flippen (The Flip)” I appreciate the break.  A pure Ozarks instrumental that does a funky little acid rock thing in the middle — not many can do that with acoustic instruments — and then flashes back to pure West Virginny to finish up.

It’s not that most of the songs don’t stay good.  “Hundred Dollars” beefs up the emotional impact of the album with the anger and force of emotion missing elsewhere. “Soon or Never” has a wonderful melancholy, amplified by the fiddle solo at the end.

It’s just that by now I feel like I have heard it all once, twice, three times. Enough.  Surely some other dynamic of life could come into play. I’m certainly not feeling young and I haven’t smiled once.

Photo courtesy of Punch Brothers.

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