Chris Thile is a monster of modern music. A rare talent, Thile is known for his constant progress, taking his skills and voice into new territories with every endeavor. The mandolin virtuoso has released 19 full-lengths in the last 19 years, while working with renowned artists like Yo Yo Ma, Béla Fleck, Dolly Parton, Jack White and Steve Martin, among many others. In 2009, he debut his mandolin concerto Ad astra per alas porci with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, later to be played in as many as 10 high-profile orchestras across the country. He released two highly acclaimed albums in 2011: the traditional, hot-blooded Sleep With One Eye Open with Michael Daves (our #8 album of the year), and the neo-classical Goat Rodeo Sessions. He is also set to star in How To Grow A Band, a documentary about the writing and marketing of his first chamber piece “The Blind Leaving the Blind”, directed by Mark Meatto, my cousin. Oh yeah, and today he turns 31.
Finding a perfect balance between effortless pop bluegrass songwriting and awe-inspiring technical skill has long been a mission of Chris Thile, and his most recent regular outfit, Punch Brothers. Who’s Feeling Young Now?, their third release (fourth if you count How To Grow a Woman From the Ground, which you probably should) find the virtuosic five-piece balancing their extreme technical skills with their songwriting expertise better than just about anyone.
Thile returns to the scene just four months after the release of the Goat Rodeo Sessions, and takes another artful left turn on Who’s Feeling Young Now?, as is his wont. Burning through 12 tracks in 50 minutes, the Brothers take us through an emotional journey of moving compositions both rowdy and sweet. The band has never sounded this tight and comfortable, each instrument essential to the body of sound. The creeping, In Rainbows-esque opener “Movement and Location” is a perfect example of the band living and breathing as one entity, like a flock of birds navigating stormy weather.
Their newfound liveliness is consistent throughout the album, whether they’re playing a jangly pop jam like “This Girl”, the vaudevillian hopeless romantic anthem of “Patchwork Girlfriend” or the raucous, shredding instrumental “Flippen”. The title track is where you start to realize that this isn’t your ordinary, jam packed Punch Brothers album. A song like “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” would never have fit on Punch or Antifogmatic because the restless spirit—trademark of a Brothers release—is created by concise and lean songwriting rather than balls-to-the-wall complexity. Abstract Johnny Greenwood-inspired scratches flourish the heavy beating banger, as Thile gives his own “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together” sermon, all building to an ending that is virtually punk rock. Check it.
The influences of Who’s Feeling Young Now? are as far reaching as Buddy Holly to Pinkerton to Brahms to OK Computer to Aaron Copeland. If you’ve been counting, that’s three Radiohead comparisons. Long known as Radiohead fanatics, Punch Brothers acknowledge their admiration with their fantastic, instrumental arrangement of “Kid A”, composed of hand slaps and bowed bass.
With no song breaking the five-minute mark, the songwriting is both concise and robust, welcoming movements and chilling interludes while never overstuffing compositions with too many “look at me” moments. Every single beat of every song is necessary, each playing an integral role in creating a fantastic, living document of modern bluegrass. Just like every member of the band plays an integral role in the reinvention of music the Punch Brothers are known to do so well.
There isn’t a person on Earth that would argue that Thile is just your average 31-year-old. His dedication to self-reflection and musical progress keeps him alive and spry, willing to tackle any new musical challenge. And, while Thile is certainly the star of Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now? feels the most like a group effort than anything they have previously released. While the title Who’s Feeling Young Now? may sound like a complaint, it’s more a statement of maturity. By composing an album as an attempt to reconcile the realities of the mid-life, Punch Brothers have reached a turning point in their career. The effortless quality of this album only comes with age. Happy Birthday, Thile.
Peter Lillis is a staff writer for Frontier Psychiatrist. Although he’s only 24 years old, he’s starting to feel pretty old now.