Phosphorescent bluegrass: The Punch Brothers tackle 21st-century smartphone stress

NEWER GRASS: “In the past, we’ve stuck to a very organic process and made sure we could re-create it live," says mandolinist Chris Thile. When his band Punch Brothers set out to make new record The Phosphorescent Blues, "We approached the studio as fantasy, rather than as an archival process." Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

Chris Thile stays pretty busy.

When Mountain Xpress caught up with him, the McArthur genius and virtuoso mandolinist was just about to board a plane for St. Paul, Minn. There, his band Punch Brothers was scheduled to perform, and Thile was slotted to guest-host A Prairie Home Companion for a couple of weeks. The variety show gig comes in the midst of the promotional campaign for the Punch Brothers’ new album, The Phosphorescent Blues. The band’s tour in support of that record brings them to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 24.

It’s worth noting that this packed itinerary comes on the heels of a busy 2014 for Thile. He released the Grammy-nominated A Dotted Line with the recently reunited Nickel Creek, a newgrass band the preternaturally gifted string player started as a preteen. The group toured heavily throughout the summer, but Thile still managed to release his second duo record of classically minded compositions with bassist Edgar Meyer (that project, Bass & Mandolin, did take home the Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at this year’s awards ceremony) and launch a fall tour for that album too.

Still, it’s clearly the new Punch Brothers offering that has Thile most excited. While the progressive bluegrass quintet has evolved and challenged itself since its formation, The Phosphorescent Blues makes impressive strides in both thematic scope and studio finesse.

Lyrically, the record is kind of about smartphones. “We had no intention of writing an album about cellphone technology,” Thile says. But the distraction and promise of these glowing screens dominated both the band’s performances and, he says, even their rehearsals. Despite the potential threat of the technology to render us “permanently unpresent,” Thile sees the album as being more about trying to find balance rather than indicting the role of the digital world in our lives.

“It’s more about, ‘What place does this technology have in our lives? How are we going to make this technology work for us and not the other way around?”’ the mandolinist says. “We didn’t want to make a counterculture, get-off-the-grid type statement.”

Musically, the group (with Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on violin and Chris Eldridge on guitar) continues to forge a mind-boggling blend of jazz, classical, rock and pop aspirations with its technical mastery of bluegrass.  That fusion is equally clear in “Familiarity,” the three-part epic opener, as it is in the would-be hootenanny romp of “My Oh My.” For the first time, though, the group opened up its process to allow for more elaborate production.

“We basically threw caution to the wind and just chose the sounds we heard in our heads,” says Thile. “In the past, we’ve stuck to a very organic process and made sure we could re-create it live. This time we approached the studio as fantasy, rather than as an archival process, which can only be second-best to live [performance].”

This led to some new but relatively mundane flourishes — producer T-Bone Burnett snuck some electric guitar and percussion onto a few songs, Witcher overdubbed a string section here and there — but also some incredible moments that lined up nicely with the album’s themes. One such instance comes when “Familiarity” transitions from pastoral jam session into a celestial sea of reverb and multitracked vocals. Another is on the closer, “Little Lights,” a quiet little ballad that describes smartphone use as “tripping the dark fantastic/singing the phosphorescent pink and blues,” and gradually slides into a cathartic, martial arrangement led by a crowd-sourced choir that gives the album’s final moments a grand sense of hope.

While Punch Brothers has always been a bluegrass band (mostly because of its acoustic strings), The Phosphorescent Blues offers moments completely divorced from that tradition. “The instrumentation we have is really happenstance, more about where we were born and who we were born to,” Thile says. “[Now] it’s our band’s collective speaking voice. We still have control of what we say.”

WHO: Punch Brothers with The Stray Birds
WHERE: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, ticketmaster.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m. $40.76-55.44 including fees

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About Kyle Petersen
Kyle is a Columbia, South Carolina-based freelance music writer and graduate student at the University of South Carolina. He's also in a sincere, long-term love affair with the city of Asheville. You can follow him on Twitter at @kpetersen.

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