Mandolin wunderkind Chris Thile has kept himself busy since the 2006 breakup of nü-grass trio Nickel Creek, releasing an excellent solo album and assembling a new acoustic supergroup in the Punch Brothers. Thile, just 26, has already earned the kind of artistic cachet that allows him to bring in highly sought-after, first-rate musicians to record with him. And Punch proves that guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Greg Garrison, banjoist Noam Pikelny, and fiddler Gabe Witcher are more than up to the challenge of playing alongside one of modern music’s most technically gifted performers. Perhaps what surprises most about the album is the degree to which the Punch Brothers already sound like a cohesive band, rather than either Thile’s backup or one-off side project.
What prevents Punch from working as a fully realized debut, then, is its structure. The album consists of just eight tracks, four of which are an honest-to-God suite, the four movements of Thile’s long-form “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Nearly 40 minutes long, consisting primarily of instrumental passages characterized by intricate harmony and counter-melody arrangements that are both meticulously structured and flexible enough to allow for some jazz-like improvisations, and using its few passages of lyrics to give a fractured, episodic narrative of a failed marriage (drawn from the dissolution of Thile’s own marriage and the emotional and spiritual fallout thereafter), “Blind Leaving the Blind” is as nakedly ambitious as popular music gets. That it is never less than compelling is a testament to both Thile’s extraordinary talent and vision as a composer and to the band’s skill and full commitment to the project. That it never comes across as pretentious is some kind of a minor miracle.
While the album’s remaining four tracks, which are more conventionally structured and performed (and which the band wrote together), are excellent in their own right—opener “Punchbowl” recalls the work of Bela Fleck as much as it does Nickel Creek—and make references to the content of “Blind Leaving the Blind,” they still feel slight in direct comparison. The result is an album that never quite works as a whole because it doesn’t give a clear indication of what the Punch Brothers are about. With four songs that are progressive acoustic music that draw from both bluegrass and pop influences and another four that suggest a high-minded, almost classical, compositional bent, the album’s ambition actually works against it. Released as a pair of EPs, the material might have been able to stand on its own merits. Instead, the LP format draws attention to these two competing aesthetics. Still, the simple fact that what doesn’t work about their debut has to be picked apart in terms of its formal aesthetic indicates that the Punch Brothers are operating on a level of sophistication that few artists ever attempt to match.