CD reviews: Cohen, DiFranco, Punch Brothers |

CD reviews: Cohen, DiFranco, Punch Brothers

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times fileString quintet Punch Brothers, led by mandolinist Chris Thile, releases the album "Who's Feeling Young Now?" on Tuesday.

produced by Patrick Leonard, Anjani Thomas, Ed Sanders and Dino Soldo (Columbia)

On “Going Home,” the opening track to “Old Ideas,” Leonard Cohen’s first album in eight years, the 77-year-old Canadian reveals a profound level of self-knowledge. The song (published as a poem in The New Yorker simultaneously with the album’s release) has Cohen, the songwriter and narrator, treating Cohen, the person, as someone he knows perfectly. He know his habits and character, what he can do with him: “I love to speak with Leonard/ He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/ … He does what I tell him/ Even though it isn’t welcome,” Cohen sings in a song about death, redemption and stripping oneself clean of pretense.

This is the essence of Cohen as a musician – knowing exactly what he is doing. Cohen’s music is spare and slow, with no frills whatsoever – no volume, no speed, no soloing – to distract from each word and sound. To make music so bare, and to do it so masterfully, you pay attention to every last bit of it. And to do that, you look yourself in the mirror and keep looking.

The masterful “Old Ideas” is about the eternal mysteries Cohen always sings about: mortality, desire, the soul’s search for peace. Somehow, on songs that are as much prayer and blessings as music, he brings clarity to these elusive subjects, as well as wisdom, comfort and an almost surreal beauty. As he sings on “Banjo,” his version of a country-folk tune, “My duty is to know.”

produced by DiFranco and Mike Napolitano (Righteous Babe)

Ani DiFranco, who once sought to shock with her forthrightness, still knows that making music, at least the way she and Leonard Cohen do it, means putting something on the line. Her latest album opens with the lines, from the song “Life Boat,” “Every time I open my mouth I take off my clothes.”

But at 41, DiFranco has found a way of revealing herself without being quite so flashy. “Learning the ways of the world, oh my/ Learning the ways of man,” she also sings in “Life Boat.” Her education has meant a softer voice, more complex compositions, subtler guitar-playing. She still knows where she stands; the title song is a nakedly politically number with a nakedly populist, rally-round good people message; “Amendment” could literally be a stump speech for a civil rights act for women.

This current way of expressing herself seems to please DiFranco – “If yr not getting happier as you get older, then yr f—–g up,” she sings in “If Yr Not” – even if the album has its grouchier moments.

DiFranco has always backed up her brash persona with wonderful musicianship, and on “¿Which Side Are You On?” she seems just as interested in the sounds and songwriting as in the words. Backed by an inventive core group of bassist Todd Sickafoose, vibraphonist Mike Dillon and electric guitarist Adam Levy (plus a guest list that includes Pete Seeger and Cyril and Ivan Neville), DiFranco plays with reggae, jazz, blues and art songs to make something unique.

Ani DiFranco performs March 1 at Belly Up Aspen.

produced by Jacquire King (Nonesuch)

It’s not just that Punch Brothers, the quintet led by mandolinist-singer Chris Thile, is the next step in the evolution of acoustic string-band music. It’s that each Punch Brothers album pushes the genre ahead a giant step, and “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” the third or fourth album by the group (depends whether you count the pre-Punch album “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground”) is the biggest step yet. Bluegrass is one of the smaller elements in what Punch Brothers do.

The latest album includes an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” but that’s the tip of the iceberg as far as the Radiohead influence is concerned. Several of the songs, starting with the opening “Movement and Location,” only sound like Radiohead covers. Punch Brothers are exhibiting the sort of freedom that Radiohead brings to the music – a willingness to rethink structure, melody and tradition. They don’t break down boundaries, but play as if there were no boundaries to contend with, like music was a clean canvas. Particularly impressive is what Punch Brothers do with rhythm; the fact that they are so rhythmically strong, diverse and swinging with no drummer in the lineup is incredible.