Just before the Infamous Stringdusters last came to Boston, banjo player Chris Pandolfi blogged some controversial thoughts on the future of Bluegrass. Or maybe it was just on the marketing of bluegrass. Or the word "bluegrass." Ted Lehmann, one of the best bloggers in the bluegrass community, followed up with his thoughts shortly thereafter. Lehmann sums it up as the "big tent vs small tent" argument, and it basically boils down to the question, "what do we want to define bluegrass music as." To traditionalists, it isn't bluegrass unless it's done in exactly the same vein laid out by Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs; to Pandolfi and others, that definition limits artists in their creative expression and closes off the genre as a narrow niche doomed to only appeal to those living in the 1940's.
I don't propose to resolve that question here. Suffice it to say, the Punch Brothers are "big-tenters"; bluegrass purists would not consider them "real bluegrass." Did they plug in electronically? Did they bring in non-traditional bluegrass instruments, like *gasp* drums? No, nothing that crazy ... if anything, the problem is that some of their influences are too old - pre-dating the Carter Family and Bill Monroe and hearkening back to classical music. Because the bulk of the album is taken up by a four-part classical-inspired suite, "The Blind Leading the Blind."
"The Blind Leading the Blind" is beautiful, melodic, and dense, the kind of piece that undoubtedly will reward repeated listenings but makes an immediately impression with the musical lines and riffs thrown out by frontman Chris Thile's mandolin, Gabe Witcher's fiddle, and Noam Pikelny's banjo. All five members of the band (including guitarist Chris Eldrige and bass player Greg Garrison) are impeccable instrumentalists, but it's the obvious feeling behind the tracks that makes it hang together; there's a theme and a feeling, not just mindless noodling. Learning that Thile wrote the suite to chronicle his failed marriage just gives it additional emotional oomph.
The rest of the album shows off the Punch Brothers' range; opener "Punch Bowl" is a romping fiddle tune; "Sometimes" is an elegant instrumental; "Nothing, Then" is a bass-driven number that borders on the emo; closer "It'll Happen" is a gentle psychedelic waltz. Each track seems both polished and skilled and also intuitive and improvisational; the album seems both organic and orchestrated at once. It's really an advertisement for what "big-tent" bluegrass can be, taking elements from traditional music and also from pop, jazz, and classical. If the "small-tent" folks want to say it's "not real bluegrass," it's their loss.
Punch Brothers - Antifogmatic