Stuck in My Head #17 – Punch Brothers “Familiarity”

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I guess I didn’t think Punch Brothers would ever last. When Nickel Creek announced they were going on indefinite hiatus after their farewell tour in 2007, it was welcome news that mandolinist Chris Thile had a new project. I heard on NPR that he had composed a four-movement suite that would blur the boundary between bluegrass and classical music, and that he and some other virtuosos would perform the piece at Carnegie Hall. I listened to it; it was predictably awesome. Then I stashed it away on a portable drive full of MP3s and forgot about it.

Eight years and three highly successful albums later, Punch Brothers are arguably the new standard-bearers for progressive bluegrass.[i] Their songs frequently do interpret Thile’s classical-style compositions with instrumental arrangements that include banjos, mandos, and dobros. But the surprise is how accessible and poppy the music is. Singles like “I Blew It Off,” released late last year prior to the album Phosphorescent Blues, are catchy and effortlessly beautiful, and fit comfortably on the playlists of indie rock or country radio stations. So how do we categorize Punch Brothers? Are they the ear-challenging, frontier-exploring sound experiment of a bunch of master technicians? Or are they an easy-listening crossover act with mass appeal?

They’re kind of the best of both worlds. They are that rare group that combines a desire to experiment, the ridiculous chops necessary to pull it off, and a songwriting sensibility that doesn’t alienate listeners who have zero awareness of music theory. Thile and company seem to understand that no matter how complex a piece gets, or how much technical mastery it takes to play, it’s still just basically about making pretty sounds people want to hear.

The song I can’t stop playing lately is “Familarity,” the ten-minute first track off the new album.

The sounds come at me in a series of beautifully orchestrated movements. This isn’t a bunch of guys taking turns picking super fast. It is a complex web of melodic layers woven around one another. The song starts with Thile spiraling through notes on his mandolin, soon joined by Gabe Witcher’s groaning violin surges. He sings:

It’s on
Again you hate it but you know it then
You know it and so do your friends
And you can sing together when
It’s on
Pretend you love it because you love them
As you explode out of your phones (amen)
To make some music of your own (amen)
You can hate it softly to yourself alone
A man among amens

Like a number of songs on Phosphorescent Blues, “Familiarity” seems to be exploring themes of how digital technology and screen-based communication devices are affecting how we interact with our loved ones. The inclusion of the “amens” at the end of several lines provides makes an interesting statement about the throw-away insignificance of a text message or an email. Just as saying “amen” in a church service quickly loses any real meaning, becoming just a habit or verbal tick, pressing “send” also represents detachment from authentic experience. “A man among amens,” further imbues the word with a secondary meaning: something artificial.

A sudden tempo change is punctuated by a resonating, deep tone of violin combined with Paul Kowart’s bass. Noam Pikelny’s banjo teeters in over Chris Eldridge’s muted guitar shuffle. Thile’s smooth tenor expresses confusion about deciphering the authenticity of his experience, continuing to contrast symbols of spirituality with the secular and synthesized:

A ringing bell or programmed drums or both
I couldn’t tell but I rejoice
A smoke machine or a swinging thurible
It was hard to see but I lifted up my voice
We’ve come together over we know not what

The band joins in fully now, with building energy piloted by Witcher’s frenzied bow and Eldridge’s heavy strumming.

A call to prayer
Or the last for alcohol
We didn’t care
We knelt and bowed our heads

Witcher sets down his violin for a moment and takes to the drum kit, the band quiets for a moment as he adds a beat, and eventually some cymbal splashes.

Or did we dance?
Like we may never get another chance
To disconnect
We’ve come together over we know not what
To say I love you

Thile seems to be questioning whether or not he can even trust his own experience when so much experience can be generated with electronics. The “coming together,” the pledges of love may be hollow without direct human contact as their basis. The band harmonizes like a barbershop quartet over those last two lines, before the strings build back in as Thile and Elderidge echo each other’s vocals:

I love you, I love you
I mean it, I want to feel it
God help me feel it
I love you
God knows I mean it
God help me feel it
God knows we mean it
God help us feel it

The song builds to a crescendo as the vocals fade out here. The ecstatic climbs of the music lend the weight of yearning to a lyrical stanza that could fall flat under different circumstances. It’s the plea of a man who feels numbed by his electronic modes of communication. The voices fade out as the tempo changes again and the songs enters another movement.

Pikelny picks his banjo slowly, eventually joined by the bass and the other strings, before Thile’s voice returns:

We lie in bed
The wireless dancing through my head
Until I fear the space between my breath
I see an end to where I don’t love you like I can
Cause I’ve forgotten how it feels (amen)
To love someone or thing for real (amen)
Darling when you wake
Remind me what we’ve done
That can’t be shared or saved or even sung

The instruments sort of stumble around each other in a pleasant cacophony while the singer wonders if it’s possible for him to have an experience, perhaps between he and his lover, that cannot be recorded or reflected upon. How funny is it that humanity has spent thousands of years trying to find a way to cheat time, to become immortal, and now that it is possible for so many of us to write our own personal epics, we are finding that it is in fact the temporal nature of our experiences that make them holy?

It’s on
Again you nod your head and take my hand
Though I’m not sure where we’ll go (amen)
To worship more than what we know (amen)
As long as you’re there I won’t be alone
A man among amens

“Familiarity” sort of peters out gracefully, a peaceful denouement for a grandiose musical journey.

Enjoy this video of the band’s full performance at Boston’s House of Blues this past March:

If you’re worried that watching Punch Brothers perform on Youtube or listening to their songs through a speaker might somehow reduce the transcendent value of your experience, you can see them live at festivals and concerts throughout the summer. I’ll be in the crowd for their set at the Green River Festival on Saturday, July 11th. I’ll try to get a decent recording to share if you’re interested (amen).


[i] Chris Thile was recently named as Garrison Keillor’s successor as host of A Prairie Home Companion. Kid’s at the helm of the ship now, he can steer Bluegrass in any direction he wants.

2 thoughts on “Stuck in My Head #17 – Punch Brothers “Familiarity”

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