Given some of my other reviews, I don’t think it’s any secret that I love good bluegrass. I maintain that there’s something special — almost magical — about the way a small group of acoustic instruments can fit together when played with seething, reckless abandon. Bluegrass is a kind of music that needs physical control over the instrument and a keen ear, knowing when to lighten strums so the instrument soloing can be clearly heard. Punch Brothers (who are not real brothers) show incredible bluegrass prowess, digging deep into the necessary roots of a music that is very root-based, and providing on this record a whirling and breakneck album that truly shines on its many abstract tunes.
Who’s Feeling Young Now? opens with urgency on “Movement and Location,” a song that Bela Fleck could have and might wish he had written. Noam Pikelny’s banjo creates a hypnotic reeling backdrop with Paul Kowert’s bass line that Chris Thile’s soothing vocals stand out against to haunt the listener. With staccato violin, such a wall of sound is created that you might think there’s no way the band could get past it, but they do. “This Girl” brings the band back to a more “traditional” bluegrass sound, but even here there’s some discernable rock styling. “New York City” might be the most traditionally bluegrass original song on the album, with the instruments railing along with immediacy as Thile’s crooning and heartbreaking vocals round the song out.
But this album isn’t about traditional bluegrass. It’s about taking all of those great things rooted in tradition and modernizing them, stretching them into something that is still bluegrass at its core, but on the surface is something much different. Let’s just say it: how many bluegrass bands can cover Radiohead (“Kid A”) and do it really well? They even do cabaret rock with southern class: “Patchwork Girlfriend” belongs on a stage. With a stomping and bouncing rhythm and a screeching yet melodic fiddle, Thile muffles his vocals enough to create a dark imagery that is really just astounding.
There’s so much to listen for on this album. I rarely say this, but a review cannot do Who’s Feeling Young Now? justice. If you haven’t listened to it already, find it, buy it and listen. You’ll hear new elements with each turn. You wouldn’t think that five acoustic instruments would be able to do the kinds of things the Punch Brothers make them do. But they do — and so much more.