Sunday, July 22, 8 p.m., $35–$183
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
P>unch Brothers has always been a band of big leaps. Its mere existence is a feat of sleight of hand. Its componentsmandolin, banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar, and upright bassindicate a bluegrass ensemble on paper, but their music has always rejected any and all genre qualifiers. Led by mandolin titan Chris Thile, the group tugs at threads of jazz, classical, pop, rock, country, and yes, sometimes bluegrass, for its distinct amalgam. But with their new record, All Ashore, Punch Brothers flounder rather than fly, revealing the widening gap between Thile’s roles as a personality and a songwriter.
Punch Brothers’ members have always been far too talented to limit their skills to a single pursuit, and in the years between 2015’s The Phosphorescent Blues and the new All Ashore, they’ve naturally busied themselves with other projects. Guitarist Chris Eldridge issued his second sublime album with jazz phenom Julian Lage, and banjo player Noam Pikelny delivered another scintillating solo record; fiddler Gabe Witcher produced both of those LPs as well as Sara Watkins’s Young in All the Wrong Ways. Bassist Paul Kowert released a record called Unless with his other band, Hawktail, in addition to touring with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.
Thile, meanwhile, has stepped into the full-time role as the host of Live from Here, rebranded as such after it came to light that A Prairie Home Companion‘s Garrison Keillor had trouble keeping his hands and lusty thoughts to himself. (Thile’s Punch Brethren have joined him frequently on the program.) Thile has always been a chatty, cheeky performer whose onstage banter is as much a part of the show as any of his songs. The variety-show format suits him unabashedly well, allowing him to vamp as a talking head while still playing plenty of music. But while Thile has amped up his ringleader showmanship, the show’s hoary eclecticism has seeped into Punch Brothers’ songs, to their overall detriment.
There are more than a few head-scratchers across All Ashore. A line like “The struggle is fake, the triumph is real,” from “It’s All Part of the Plan,” sounds like something written by a buggy automaton trying to make clickbait content for millennials, not a man who has won a MacArthur “genius” grant. The record’s second track, “The Angel of Doubt,” falls off the deep end in its fourth quarter, with Thile heading full-throttle into a bizarre spoken-word/slam-poetry passage while the rest of the band locks into a low-end groove. Thile’s lyrics have often addressed anxieties and uncertainties in the fields of love, religion, and life at large, but his stream-of-consciousness ruminations on “The Angel of Doubt” carry little weight. The message in no way justifies Thile’s thoroughly corny means.
But “Jumbo” is All Ashore‘s most unfortunate offender. With Donald Trump Jr. as its unnamed antagonist, “Jumbo” marks first time Punch Brothers have gotten overtly political on an album, alluding to the lesser Trump’s various flailings: his general ineptitude, his posing with a horrifying trophy of a dead elephant’s tail, his probable meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The song fails to leverage much in the form of sharp criticism or satire; instead, it’s built from cheap, obvious shops at Trump Jr.’s plain oafishness. “Here comes Jumbo/American as gumbo” is the cringe-inducing start to the song’s chorus. As a whole, the song is rude but not too rude, lest the discourse get too uncivil. As Thile sings, “Privileged is a pretty hard thing to be,” he’s apparently unaware of the irony of including such a line in an ultra-lite “resistance” song that feels on par with The Simpsons‘ Nelson Muntz pointing and shouting, “ha-ha!”
Part of the thrill of earlier Punch Brothers records was the knowledge that the band was constantly trying to propel itself forward, achieved through employing effects pedals and percussion on Who’s Feeling Young Now? and The Phosphorescent Blues. But All Ashore generally lacks that same ambitious energy.
The album’s instrumental numbers are precise and delightful, but they also sound as though they could fit almost anywhere in the band’s back catalog. That is to say, the songs where the band should be shining brightest instead leave you wondering where the spark went. “Jungle Bird,” like 2012’s “Squirrel of Possibility,” is the one where the band shows off its bluegrass side a little more. Even “Three Dots and a Dash,” All Ashore‘s high water mark, recalls the fluidity of 2013’s “Flippen” or the entirety of the band’s 2010 EP, All of This Is True.
All Ashore‘s title alludes to some sort of grand new adventure, but in the context of Punch Brothers’ discography, it mostly just sounds like they’ve run aground.