Punch Brothers has always centered, both on stage and on record, on mandolinist Chris Thile, who handles the majority of the group’s singing and songwriting duties, as well as its many virtuosic solos. (The group evolved from Thile’s backing band for his 2006 solo record How To Grow A Woman From The Ground.) But Punch Brothers’ third album as a group, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, sees Thile and company continuing their evolution into a more egalitarian enterprise, sounding less like a hot-shit mandolin player with a crack backing ensemble and more like a band—and something like a rock band, at that.
For a group that commits to traditional bluegrass instrumentation—banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass—and uses no drums or electric guitar, Punch Brothers hew remarkably close to the indie-rock sounds of today on several of Feeling Young’s more aggressive tracks, like the punk-tinged title track or the sneering “Hundred Dollars.” (Though friendlier jams like the bouncy “This Girl” or the klezmer-kissed “Patchwork Girlfriend” are no less sophisticated in their more traditionalist approach.) Some credit goes to producer Jacquire King, who’s produced albums along both the traditional (Buddy Guy, Tom Waits) and rock (Modest Mouse, Kings Of Leon) spectrums, and blended the group’s acoustic and amplified tracks for a slightly pumped-up organic sound. But it’s more due to the quintet’s increasingly naturalistic interplay: Though Thile still handles the majority of the vocals (excepting fiddle player Gabe Witcher’s excellent contribution on “Hundred Dollars”), he’s just as likely to act as a song’s rhythm section as he is to trade solos with Witcher and banjo player Noam Pikelny.
Which isn’t to say Thile’s playing isn’t exceptional—he’s inarguably one of the most accomplished mandolin players in the world—but his increasingly refined lyrics and vocals on songs like the gorgeous lovers’ lullaby “Soon Or Never” and “Don’t Get Married Without Me” indicate he’s allowed himself to shift some of his attention away from the group’s intricate arrangements toward more songwriterly concerns. Feeling Young also features two cover songs, both instrumentals, in Radiohead’s “Kid A” and Swedish band Väsen’s “Flippen,” which is easily the album’s most bluegrass-y track; and while both are masterful pieces of both adaptation and musicianship, they’re less interesting than the group’s original fare, which exists both out of time and in the moment thanks to its youthful, gung-ho approach to timeless sounds.