Words by Matt Milton
Every mention of Chris Thile inevitably describes him as the best mandolin player in the world. Reviews of Punch Brothers’ albums invariably state how freakishly good they are at playing their instruments. So, having now duly pointed out all elephants in the room, what makes The Phosphorescent Blues different from the alt-bluegrass group’s previous four albums?
This time, the quintet is playing a game of musical dressing-up. Each track flings on a new costume: a Beach Boys pastiche bumps into some contemporary R&B influences; a classical prelude shares space with melancholic songs that echo Pink Floyd. The funk interlude in ‘Familiarity’ recalls the jerky hip-hop of Missy Elliott. The drums in ‘I Blew it Off’ come as a shock – the last thing you’d expect from these boys is head-nodding, 70s-style drive-time rock. But they somehow manage to pull it off, while still sounding like their cerebral, complex selves. In fact, there’s only one track, ‘Boll Weevil’, that overtly dips back into the bluegrass they grew up on. Punch Brothers appear to have acquired a serious personality disorder; one that is clearly working very well for them.