The 21st century folk scare is now in full swing, and if you like your acoustic music rough, there’s no better place to get it that way than via Punch Brothers, the bluegrass band for people who hate bluegrass.
The title of the group’s terrific third album, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?,” probably isn’t intended to make a statement about string-band music's staidness-vs.-vitality dynamics. But it does anyway.
Led by ex-Nickel Creek member Chris Thile, the band continues to rock in a big way, without ever seeming like they’re trying too hard to be mandolin, violin and banjo players rocking in a big way. (Important distinction, there.)
Sometimes you do get the sensation that Punch Brothers are coming up with rock songs that just happen to be played on un-electrified instruments -- as with “Movement and Location,” a driving opener you'd swear was a cover of a long-lost Arcade Fire obscurity if the credits didn’t tell you better.
Most of the time, though, they’re arriving at a hybrid that’s altogether inexplicable, abandoning neither their bluegrass nor singer/songwriter origins, but embedding rootsy-pop hooks in roller-coaster arrangements so original and complicated that there’s nothing to do but scratch your scrambled head and buy a ticket to ride again.
Mandolin virtuosos tend not be great lyricists, and vice versa, historically. Thile, then, is the eight-string-shredding wordsmith/journeyman we’ve been waiting for, packing “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” with gems that match the mostly frantic music with equal doses of neurotic emotion and arch wit.
The most immediately charming number, “This Girl,” is one cheeky bluegrass devotional. Although Thile's not the first songwriter to beg the Almighty to make an unrequited love interest see the light, he might be the first to put his prayer in terms as erudite as these: “Father, you of all gods ought to know how little to expect from people/But I think you might be pleasantly surprised to see what this girl/Would bring out of me…/I’d be the happiest backslider in the world/If you would tell her it’s your will.”
I don't think Bill Monroe done it that way, but that's OK.
The closer, “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” goes to equally funny lengths in the service of faded amour. Thile tells his girl it’s time to admit the fire has gone out, but he still wants to keep her in reserve, adding, “Anyone else is a lateral move at best/And who says I’ll be able to move at all/’Til I cozy back up to you this fall.”
Not all the songs indulge in that level of levity, and a couple of them don’t stoop to vocals or lyrics at all, like their all-instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A.” But for fans of the string-band idiom who’ve suffered through some pretty prosaic songwriting over the years, Thile’s knack for picking at thorny relationships as well as master-class fingerpicking can’t be counted as anything short of a godsend.
“It’s a little like there could be something new under the sun,” Thile sings in the surprised-to-be-optimistic title track. He's not kidding: The most remarkable thing about “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” is how this drumless combo seem to be using their vintage gear to create a fresh genre, not piece together borrowed retro idioms.
The punchiness implicit in their name isn't just false branding. If you can even deign to call "Who's Feeling..." a bluegrass album, it’s the very rare one that won’t be wasted on the banjo-phobic young.