Record Routine: Punch Brothers fall flat in new album

These days, what is a bluegrass band supposed to do? It's not like Appalachia's been silent these past few years; while record labels clamor for indie-pop bands fielding banjos and the like, Punch Brothers alumni and their contemporaries have been hard at work with a steady stream of albums that pump soul into that bluegrass heart. Yet, that doesn't seem to be enough for the Punch Brothers. The Phosphorescent Blues, their latest album, carves through its traditional binds for something more—some kind of sense beyond that traditional novelty.

Case in point, the bluegrass troupe introduced their album with a 10-minute epic dedicated to technological paranoia. Singer and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile rails against the disingenuous cell phone culture as the band flutters through a movement-divided ballad. After that, the bluegrass troupe digs into the intricate and classical (Debussy and Scriabin, to be exact) before striking up a pop heart with the bouncing “I Blew it Off.” Even with all of this eclecticism, Punch Brothers still find time to bring it all home with the exuberant “Boll Weevil,” a classic bluegrass romp. 

But this genre hopping doesn't really travel anywhere. The Phosphorescent Blues sticks with a tame sense of balladry, far away from the rapturous waltzes and—dare I say—fun of bluegrass' roots. When that 10-minute epic, “Familiarity,” comes to a close, it doesn't really feel like much has actually happened along that playtime. Similar tracks, like later track “Between 1st and A,” are just as likely to fade into Phosphorescent Blues' backdrop. Only more rooted tracks, like “Boll Weevil” or “My Oh My,” really capture that renewed life Punch Brothers were genre-hopping for.

Punch Brothers use The Phosphorescent Blues to find modern life in one of America's musical past times. They jump through epic ballads and classical recreations, digging for that life in stylistic change-ups their musical forefathers wouldn't have dreamed of. Yet these challenges come across like background music, with only traditional bulwarks like “Boll Weevil” taking the reigns. Phosphorescent Blues should be commended for its attempts to redefine bluegrass' tropes, but somewhere between technophobia and Debussy, it's bluegrass's simple charm that's left hurting.

Grade: C+

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