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Punch Brothers

The Phosphorescent Blues – 2015 (Nonesuch)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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The Punch Brothers don't feint; they want to stun and amaze you on this deeply rich and textured work. "Phosphorescent Blues" is a master class in instrumentalization, structure and melody. It's not bluegrass, but it is. It's not jazz, but then again... To categorize this music is to diminish it.

The Punch Brothers are at once laid back, but frenetic, and world class players. Their vision and adventurousness, exemplified by "Phosphorescent Blues" more than any of their previous releases, pull you through the tracks and leaves you better for the journey.

The Punch Brothers are the 1927 New York Yankees of the acoustic/bluegrass scene. The band is a collection of musical polymaths. Bassist Paul Kowert has played with Mike Marshall, Haas Kowert Tice and the Dave Rawlings Machine. Gabe Witcher was a staple on the Southern California fiddle scene, "retiring" at age 14. He is a prized session player. Noam Pikelny plays banjo, and recently covered the iconic "Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" (and received an IBMA album of the year award and Grammy nomination for it). Chris "Critter" Eldredge is, arguably, the finest guitar player since Tony Rice. Chris Thile, the ringmaster and another former child whiz (his first album features him on a baseball field in his Chicago Cubs hat), plays mandolin precisely and sings lead impeccably. Oh, and he founded Nickel Creek, won a MacArthur 'genius" grant a couple of years ago, and won a Grammy in 2015 for his collaboration with bassist Edgar Meyer.

"Phosphorescent Blues" has chops, harmony, classical pieces by Debussy and Scriabin, a traditional tune ("Boll Weevil") and plenty of evocative, soaring originals, which meld a folklorist's connection to tradition with fierce instrumental prowess. Displaying their wit and flexibility, there's even a couple of pop-ish songs "I Blew It Off" and "Little Lights" (which features a crowd-sourced chorus of Punch Brothers fans gathered from the Internet).

The Punch Brothers' talent, and, yes, ambition, show the rest of us how to land a musical blow.