Chris Thile's first post-Nickel Creek band project (the ultra-prolific, former child prodigy has been releasing solo albums since 1994) builds upon the darker, more challenging moments of 2005's Why Should the Fire Die?, drifting further into the ultra-progressive bluegrass that has become his forté since expanding his repertoire from young mandolin virtuoso to genre-bending, new acoustic trailblazer. The Punch Brothers consist of Thile at the wheel, fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and bassist Greg Garrison, all of whom share their bandleader's impeccable chops and unpredictability. The group's heady debut begins innocently enough with the serpentine yet reasonably catchy "Punch Bowl," a song that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Strength in Numbers' Telluride Sessions, but from there, things take a left turn (this is a band that routinely works covers of Radiohead and the Strokes into their live set), and a rewarding one at that. Thile's four movement/forty-minute "Blind Leading the Blind" suite is heavy (as in divorce, loss, love, and redemption heavy), but it's also exhilarating. It ebbs and flows with little concern for conventional structure or traditional narrative, bursting into frenetic picking and dissolving into gentle harmonics whenever it chooses, layering even-handed, vibrato-free sections of close harmony singing over increasingly dissonant chord progressions that warrant repeated listens even as they unfold. It's a bold move, and one that straddles pretense all the way through without ever succumbing. Traditional bluegrass fans will no doubt require multiple mugs of Punch, and even then they may never quite get it, but if you relish the idea of Béla Fleck, Turtle Island String Quartet, and Jim O'Rourke getting together for a friendly meal of reconstruction and catharsis, then your dinner is most certainly ready.
by James Christopher Monger