Bravura five-piece Punch Brothers deliver a modern take on roots music, and their new album All Ashore has them setting their sights on the tumult of American politics. By Dave Faulkner.

Punch Brothers’ ‘All Ashore’

Punch Brothers (from left): Chris Eldridge, Noam Pikelny, Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher and Paul Kowert.
Punch Brothers (from left): Chris Eldridge, Noam Pikelny, Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher and Paul Kowert.
Credit: Supplied

In 2015, Chris Thile quipped to an interviewer, “There’s a time for James Joyce and there’s a time for Ernest Hemingway.” Thile, a virtuoso mandolin player and the lead singer and driving force behind Punch Brothers, was explaining how his band have strived to make their songs more direct and immediate. It’s an ambition that is more than fulfilled on the latest Punch Brothers album, All Ashore, released on Friday. Thile’s heartfelt, forthright lyrics mingle the personal and the political, the playful and the profound, sometimes even managing to be all of those things at once. Musically, the album is simply bursting with melodic invention and bravura playing. All Ashore is the sound of five extraordinary musicians hitting a creative peak together.

Appropriately, the title track leads off the album. “All Ashore” begins with Noam Pikelny’s delicate banjo picking, quickly answered by Thile quietly thrumming a simple melody on his mandolin. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, other instruments join in. Chris Eldridge adds soft arpeggios on acoustic guitar, while Gabe Witcher and Paul Kowert gently bow a legato string line in octaves on violin and double bass, respectively. The combined effect is like a morning mist slowly lifting in the early light of dawn. Eldridge’s guitar switches to a softly insistent rhythm, followed by the bass, and the mandolin plays a percussive counter-rhythm. Only then does Thile begin to sing:

Momma cuts like a man-of-war

Through the fog of an early morning

With nothing more than a coffee filling up her sails

The cinematic music paints the scene as vividly as the singer’s words. Thile describes this woman’s morning routine while her male partner sleeps, before vividly contrasting female and male energy.

Daddy burns like a meteor

Through a night of his own diversions

Hoping to blaze half a second of a glowing trail

Thile became a parent for the first time a few years ago and his lyrics evince his awe of feminine strength and fortitude. The woman depicted in “All Ashore” is steadfast and sturdy, like a “man-of-war” ready to take on the world, while its male protagonist is as ephemeral as a shooting star.

One puts into port

Lowers a rowboat and grabs an oar

Singing, all ashore that’s going ashore

One falls back to earth

Leaves a crater on the bedroom floor

Singing, love, I know I promised more than this

For my money, “All Ashore” is worth the price of admission by itself. Remarkable as this song is though, the other eight on this record also pull their weight.

“The Angel of Doubt”, All Ashore’s second track, exposes some of the darker reaches of the male psyche. Thile describes trying to keep “demons at bay” as they tease him and prey on his insecurities, whispering, “What if you’re wrong? You might be wrong.” As clever as the lyrics are, the real action is in the music. Beginning in straight 4/4 time, the song is mostly built upon a 7/8 rhythm, which rocks along despite its unorthodox time signature. It’s a difficult trick to pull off but the sneaky riff that Punch Brothers have devised sounds so natural and “right” that it feels as regular as straight time. Dave Brubeck achieved something similar when he came up with the catchy 5/4 piano riff for his jazz classic, “Take Five”.

None of the members of Punch Brothers are actually related – their name comes from the Mark Twain short story “A Literary Nightmare” – but these musical brothers are very much kindred spirits who honed their skills in bluegrass bands over many years. Thile started playing in public when he was eight years old and had recorded his first solo album at 13, but violinist Witcher began performing even earlier, when he was six. Punch Brothers first got together in 2006 to record Chris Thile’s fifth solo album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, however it was another two years before they released their official debut album. Though they still share a deep, abiding love for bluegrass, these days the members of Punch Brothers are as excited by Radiohead as they are by Bill Monroe, and from day one their music incorporated jazz, classical and rock elements. Although their line-up has the classic bluegrass configuration of mandolin, fiddle, bass fiddle, guitar and banjo, what they play is original contemporary music. They just happen to use traditional instruments.

“Three Dots and a Dash” has a slightly unusual 6/4 time signature and is the first of two instrumentals on the album. Its title derives from a World War II-era tiki cocktail, which in turn got its name from the letter “V” in Morse code – as in “V for Victory”. Thiles is a fan of the sticky, sweet cocktail but luckily the song is nowhere near as cloying. Beginning almost casually, the track slowly picks up momentum until, unexpectedly, there is a brief, pastoral interlude in the middle before slowly building back up again to a frantic climax and ending with a mighty flourish. “Three Dots and a Dash” is a reminder that music can take listeners on an emotional journey without needing lyrics.

All Ashore is Punch Brothers’ fifth album but it is the first the band have produced by themselves. Their previous record, 2015’s The Phosphorescent Blues, was supervised by T Bone Burnett, who even brought in a drummer on some tracks. Rather than make the music more dynamic, the album’s pop affectations only flattened Punch Brothers’ personality. All Ashore has a few discreet overdubs and, possibly, a little digital delay at one point but, by and large, these songs were recorded entirely live in the studio. It’s pure, undiluted Punch Brothers – and much better for it. 

They did make one unusual decision this time, which Gabe Witcher detailed in an interview for the album’s press release, “We decided we would write and record this album in sequence,” he said. “In doing so we were really able to construct the narrative, musically and lyrically, throughout the whole process. That was a new way of doing things for us that helped the cohesiveness and narrative.” While all five band members created the music together, it was Thile who wrote the lyrics, though he often bounced his ideas off his bandmates. “We were hoping we could create a thing that would be convincing as a complete thought,” Thile said. “Sort of a nine-movement or a nine-song thought, even though it’s rangy in terms of what it’s talking about and in the characters doing the talking.”

According to Thile, All Ashore is “a meditation on committed relationships in the present day, particularly in light of the current unsettled political climate – certainly the most unsettled one that anyone in the band has ever experienced”.

That climate clearly influenced the next two songs. The first half of “Just Look at This Mess” appears to be from the viewpoint of Donald Trump, the upsetter-in-chief:

Just look at this mess I’ve made in the thick of it

I like it like this but I’ll never tell you that

’Cause I lie like the colours of the rainbow

Just look at these grown-ass men at my beck and call

Wherever we go, God helps those who help themselves

Later, Thile changes perspective to address those who may be intimidated by all the turmoil in Washington, referencing a common baseball heckling tactic:

Don’t let him get to you

Don’t let him put you off your game

With his, “Hey batter, batter, swing!”

“Jumbo” is even more scathing about Trump and his political enablers. Named for a famous circus elephant, it’s also a nod to the time-honoured elephant symbol of the United States Republican Party.

Well, here comes Jumbo with a phone in his hand

Bet it’s been a while since you seen a real man

grown up strong on the fat of the land of the free

Sure, I guess he got off to a hell of a start

With his grandpa’s money and his daddy’s heart

But you oughta know privileged is a pretty hard thing to be

The song is a jaunty blues rag, as sung by a practised snake-oil salesman.

You elitist bums, go

get yourselves off of Capitol Hill

’Cause we’ve just about had our fill

of y’all playing Columbo

When anyone can tell

that good old Jumbo

was only trying to help

From the low point of gutter politics, the album lifts its gaze to the heavens with an everyman tale of a simple gardener going about his work, practically invisible to the people whose gardens he tends. “The Gardener” is a truly beautiful song, with poignant lyrics that lightly touch upon notions of class, privilege, environmentalism and immigration, ending up as a father’s prayer for his family and for humanity in general. It’s a phenomenal piece of songwriting.

The whimsical “Jungle Bird” is the album’s second instrumental, replete with dizzying flurries of notes that recall the uninhibited frenzy of Earl Scruggs’ bluegrass masterpiece “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. This is bound to be a showstopper in concert.

“It’s All Part of the Plan” was the first single released from All Ashore and is the second-last song here. Once again, Trump’s presidency casts a shadow over the lyrics, but Thile also implicates the would-be dictator lurking inside all of us, as if to explain how such a monstrous egotist as Trump could have arisen out of our collective id.

All Ashore has one final treat, “Like It’s Going Out of Style”, a rumination on temporality and Thile’s sense of hope for the future, ending the album on a profound, positive note. It’s the simple message of a father to his child, and also to the child in himself and in us all.

Singing ah, when we grow up we’ll have it all

Our true love is reflected in the change

we embrace for one another

Our true selves live forever in the change

we effect in one another

So forge ahead knowing you just have to miss me when I’m gone, and love, I’m always gonna come back around

’Cause I love you like it’s going out of style

Punch Brothers comprises five outstanding musicians, each a brilliant player in their own right, but the way they intuit and respond to each other as an ensemble is their greatest musical gift. That’s something guitarist Chris Eldridge recognises: “To have that ongoing relationship, to have had a decade together, with it comes this sense that we don’t need to prove anything,” he said. “We are comfortable enough with what we are, what we do, to celebrate the things that are cool and unique and creative about the band. Looking at it from that angle, our only goal was to make a record that was honest and beautiful.”

All Ashore is honest and beautiful. It is also magnificent.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 21, 2018 as "Chin music".

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