CD Reviews: Acoustic music that packs a Punch | AspenTimes.com

CD Reviews: Acoustic music that packs a Punch

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Autumn de WildeAcoustic quintet the Punch Brothers, with mandolinist Chris Thile, far left, have released their debut album, Punch.

With several of the greatest string players in the world headed our way bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile next week (Wednesday, Aug. 13, at Aspens Harris Hall); dobroist Jerry Douglas (Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival) lets take the full immersion into the acoustic realm.Punch Brothers, Punch produced by Steven Epstein (Nonesuch) Why would Nickel Creek call it quits when the trio was on top of the world making daring and satisfying music, selling way more records than any acoustic group should, and, with just three albums under their belts, seemingly with a lot more music left to make? One reason might be that Chris Thile, Nickel Creeks mighty mandolinist, had even better things in mind. The Punch Brothers is a quintet with the standard bluegrass instrumentation guitar (Chris Eldridge), fiddle (Gabe Witcher), banjo (Noam Pickelny), bass (Gregg Garrison, who, like Pickelny, retains membership in Colorado jam-band Leftover Salmon) and mandolin (Mr. Thile). Like Nickel Creek, the Bros. look to expand the boundaries of string music while keeping it all acoustic. But while Thiles previous band employed a quasi-pop mentality covering songs by the likes of Pavement, employing non-traditional recording techniques the Punch Brothers play it straight. Which is not to say Punch resembles very much what Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs would recognize as bluegrass. The drive of bluegrass is replaced by a more free-floating rhythmic sensibility that can turn on a dime from a glide to a chug, and right back again. The rhythmic ideal at play here is reason enough for aspiring string players to study Punch; the opening track, Punch Bowl, in just three and a half minutes, covers an enormous range of tempos. Moreover, Thile displays an abiding desire to punch his way into the arena of long-form composition, as opposed to song-writing. The centerpiece of the album is the four-movement suite, The Blind Leaving the Blind. A melancholy reflection on the 27-year-old Thiles divorce, the piece covers huge swaths of territory. The aim is to blend tightly composed sections with passages of blinding group improvisation, and the Punch Brothers do it so well here, its often hard to tell which theyre doing at any given time. Throw in Thiles voice its not always a great one, but here he captures just the right notes of weariness, heartache and resignation. Consider Punch Brothers in a category with New Grass Revival, Strength in Numbers and yes, Nickel Creek of bands that have brought acoustic music to an appreciably higher level. Chris Thile performs in a duo recital with bassist Edgar Meyer on Wednesday, Aug. 13 at Harris Hall. Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet produced by Bla Fleck (Nettwerk) Ive stopped asking much from my radio. I no longer expect it, as I did as a kid, to open my ears to new worlds and then transport me there. But a few weeks ago, over the radio, I heard a sound I didnt know, something gorgeous and moving and different. After a minute, I had pinned down the banjoist it could only be Bla Fleck and that led me to the conclusion that what I was hearing was Flecks latest project. Or I should say, the project of Abigail Washburn, banjoist and singer from the female string quartet Uncle Earl. Washburn truly is at the center of this group, singing in a frightfully delicate voice, yodeling, writing songs that touch on blues and scary old folk, and playing clawhammer banjo. There are also nods to Asia, in A Kazakh Melody and the Chinese folk song Taiyang Chulai, which Washburn sings in Chinese. The quartet is rounded out by two fine players, fiddler Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee, and even without Fleck, this would have been an interesting album. With Fleck, its irresistible. Darrell Scott, Modern Hymns produced by Scott (Appleseed Recordings) Singer-songwriter Darrell Scott leaves the writing to others here. Instead, Scott turns his attention to collecting songs by the great writers who affected Scott in his formative years. The Modern Hymns title aside, the theme of spirituality here is not an overtone. But the songs Scott selects get so much to the heart of matters like love, the cosmos, and even Jesus, that it takes on a spiritual theme. The gospel-choir intro on Out Among the Stars deepens that tone. And simply the way Scott sings and goes about things, as on the take on Joni Mitchells Urge For Going, with backing from singer Del McCoury and fiddler Stuart Duncan, makes this a heavenly experience. stewart@aspentimes.com

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