Punch Brothers’ “Antifogmatic”

Punch brothers! Punch with care! Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

Holly Etchison

out of 10

June 15, 2010

Punch brothers! Punch with care! Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

Making no secret that their name was inspired by a Mark Twain story about a distracting jingle that haunts its hearers, Punch Brothers are back for another go round with their second album, Antifogmatic. The results: Distracting? Maybe, but only in a “who was that playing in the tent?” kind of way. Haunting? Perhaps, in the contrapuntal way a Bach symphony might be. Chris Thile charts unmarked territory with his pure voice and mad mandolin, heating up the soundwaves at a frenetic pace, dropping out for unpredictable silent instances that are filled with the plucking singsong of Gabe Witcher‘s sometimes fiddle, sometimes violin strings, Noam Pikelny‘s steady banjo rhythms, Chris Eldridge‘s guitar and Paul Kowert on the stand up bass. Should his outfit hold court on the stoop of a building at a mountain festival or in the domed ceiling of the Met? It is this very question that should have listeners hanging in there for the duration of Antifogmatic, and giving it a place on the musical map somewhere near Newfoundland.

Borrowing a term for a rousing alcoholic beverage intended to bring one to their senses, Antifogmatic stays consistent in the tune of irony. Songs like “Next to the Trash” combine the comic plainspeak of a Bill Monroe tune, “It’s all part of having a man in the house,” with wacky lyrics, “She puts my body away next to the trash under the sink along with all of the cleaning supplies…but everyone needs time off now and again”–and at one moment in the middle you feel you may’ve wandered into an Italian bistro.

“Alex” is at once a sending-you-on-your-way-love song and a sweetly charming recollection of a girl. High pitched percolating strings punctuate the poetry:
“Alex let your long hair down
Like the prettiest brush you could ever use to paint this town…
I told ya honey short and sweet…
Keep your feet wet and your eyes dry
Cuz you’re only as good as your last goodbye.”

“Missy” continues in the tune of a beautiful ballad, the story of a transgressed relationship crafted with clever lyrics; the great prose can’t be drowned by the sorrow here:
“I told her once ‘get thee behind me’
Cover up Missy for the love of God…
She told me once, ‘sit down beside me’…
I told her twice ‘get thee behind me’…
She told me once ‘you won’t forget me’
And I won’t forget her.”

Nestled betwixt these symphonic stories ranging in emotion are songs like the leg-slapping “Rye Whiskey,” sure to win back the ear of any bluegrass purist listening, making me wish I had some spoons to clack together instead of my pen against an empty dvd case. The lyrics remain interesting throughout with twisty biblical references, “the spirit more willing than the body.”

“Welcome Home” is musically intriguing, a stunning stringed conversation actually, “fare thee well in a welfare line or a father’s will,” a dissonant flight of fancy.

As the last track, “This is the song” is a lovely send-off:
“This is the song where I listen
This is the song where I sit still…
But we’ll get by, good luck
These are tough times.”

And with that the Punch brothers say goodbye for now. You are unsure if you have just heard an accidental overlap of NPR’s “From the top” classical music program with “Mountain stage” or some kind of hybrid antiphonal hoedown. What you may be sure of is that these guys seem to be onto something good.  Call it progressive bluegrass, call it convoluted–the songs hold their weight thematically, lyrically, and instrumentally. The album could very well be coined “Foglifter,” one of my favorite morning coffee blends.  There is no befuddlement here, but if there was, these fellas would help you work your way through it.