Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Punch Brothers - Antifogmatic

Rating: B-

There are a few people in music that I feel like I have to keep an eye on. It's not that I'm a huge fan of all their stuff, or that it touches a special chord with me, but of course I often am and it often does. It's just that there are a handful of artists who are so talented, inventive, and challenging that every new piece of work has the potential to change music. It's not just their great music that keeps me following Radiohead and Kanye West and Outkast and Wilco; it's the potential to create something entirely new. Chris Thile is in that category. If you're not familiar with his body of work, Thile's a former mandolin child prodigy who has gone on to produce solo work, star as a member of Nickel Creek, and collaborate with Mike Marshall, among others. Punch Brothers is his latest endeavor, a collaboration with, among others, ex-Stringduster Chris Eldridge and recent Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo winner Noam Pikelny.

It's an All-Star cast, and they're not just blazing and creative pickers; they're willing to push the boundaries of what is possible in string / roots music and music in general. In "p-bingo" shows in the past couple years, the band has played everything from original material to classical music and Radiohead, done string-band style. The music doesn't adhere to groundrules set up by traditional bluegrass - songs are multi-part suites, instruments drop in-and-out, the tight traditional rhythms are twisted into melodic experiments. It's unique.

The problem with music like that of Antifogmatic, the second record by the quintet is, when it doesn't grab me, I don't know whether it's because I'm deficient or whether, for all its inventiveness and skill, the music is just not that engaging. The orchestration of some tracks into multi-part suites can be breathtaking (as in the gorgeous "Missy," where a cutting Gabe Witcher fiddle break is followed by a bridge punctuated with Thile's percussive mandolin), but oftentimes they just meander, like in opener "You Are," which starts out strong but deteriorates into sleepy background music. It's hard for the melodies to stick in this arrangement. It's no surprise that the album's most fun, punchiest, catchiest number is also the most straightforward - bluegrass stomp "Rye Whiskey."

So, maybe it's just me, or maybe, for all its uniqueness, Antifogmatic is a bit dull. There are standout tracks, and it may be that repeated listens will reward me with brilliance I didn't see on first blush. That's the thing about musical geniuses. You have to keep following them, and you can't count them out.

Punch Brothers official site

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