What impressed most about Punch Brothers’s debut, Punch, was how the band demonstrated a willingness to explore high-minded, classically inspired composition within the context of traditional acoustic music. But that album split its running time between terrific standalone tracks and a multi-song suite composed by frontman and mandolin wunderkind Chris Thile, making for an unbalanced listen. For their sophomore outing, Antifogmatic, the brothers have done a far better job of incorporating their most sophisticated aspirations into a more conventional album format.
That isn’t to say that the band adheres to many conventions of acoustic music. While Punch and their contributions to Dierks Bentley’s fantastic Up on the Ridge may have proven their skill with traditional bluegrass arrangements, it would be a stretch to call Punch Brothers a bluegrass band. For the sheer technical virtuosity of its compositions and the fearlessness of its arrangements, Antifogmatic suggests that Punch Brothers are rapidly evolving into a string-band version of Radiohead.
Even a song like “Rye Whiskey” that begins as a standard acoustic blues number takes entirely unexpected turns, like the way Thile leaves the first two refrains open-ended (“Boys, have I ever told you ‘bout the time I…”) and how the song slow-builds to a cacophonous, apocalyptic hoedown that ends with an improvisational, jazz-like coda. Opener “You Are” makes brilliant use of negative space, with Thile singing his impressionistic lyrics through nearly a cappella verses before exploding into a furious chorus that culminates in a full-bodied falsetto wail.
Thile, as always, is a powerhouse, one of the most sickly talented artists in popular music. But producer Jon Brion gives the entire band opportunity to show off. Brion is one of pop’s finest producers when it comes to creating texture, and Antifogmatic ranks among his most compelling work. Few contemporary albums have this kind of range of sound: There’s a subtle, protracted crescendo by fiddler Gabe Witcher on “The Woman and the Bell” that gives the song a sense of shape, and a guiro provides a light percussion track on the relatively spare “Alex.”
It’s those kinds of light-handed flourishes that really prove how smart the band is with their compositions and how perfectly Brion’s skill set matches up with their aesthetic. Punch Brothers can pull off a song like the smoldering, boozy “Missy” just as capably as the forceful, breakneck-paced “Don’t Need No.” But for all their peerless technical skill, it’s the gutsiness they display throughout Antifogmatic that makes the album one of the year’s finest, most ambitious records.