Progressive bluegrass combo Punch Brothers settle into a hybrid sound with a sharp melodies | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Progressive bluegrass combo Punch Brothers settle into a hybrid sound with a sharp melodies


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I’d hoped to make it through my life without hearing a host of A Prairie Home Companion break out in a rap, but with the new Punch Brothers album, All Ashore (Nonesuch) that desire has been shattered. Toward the end of the second song, “The Angel of Doubt,” mandolinist, singer, and inheritor of Garrison Keillor’s maligned throne Chris Thile switches from a sweet falsetto to a wooden, hopelessly ofay rap cadence. Despite that delivery, it makes sense that bit of hip-hop make its way into the music of the quintet, which has long used the instrumentation of bluegrass to tackle a sui generis blend of folk, jazz, contemporary classical, and rock. And that cloying misstep aside, the self-produced album is as tuneful as anything else in the band’s catalog. It tamps down some of the turbid excess of their previous efforts with pleasingly gauzy arrangements that demand remarkable technique and touch. The title track, for example, is a constantly shape-shifting gem on which Thile’s conversational melody lines slowly creep on the listener until they become inescapable. But though it lurches, grooves, and hovers, the motion feels utterly natural. The Punch Brothers’ previous album, 2015’s Phosphorescent Blues, ­meditated on the increasing ubiquity of technology in our lives—particularly in communication, and on All Ashore, the quintet examines behavior in the era of Trump: “Jumbo,” which recalls Paul McCartney in his whimsical music-hall mode, delivers an unmistakable and stinging parody of the president with lines such as “Whoa! Here comes Jumbo with a knife and a tan / And an elephant’s tail for his Instagram.” On “Just Look at This Mess” rampant selfishness is on display, and on “The Gardener” the band explores a sort of detached privilege. Though the group is refining its sound on this album rather than breaking new ground, considering how high the combo has previously set its vision, the decision seems sound to me.   v

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