Times of the Blue Light: Punch Brothers Nail It
When I was a kid, I had a record player that was contained in a white plastic carrying case, so I could snap it together and bring my music with me anywhere I wanted to go in the house. Mostly, I would grab a stack of 45s, lock them inside the record player case, and walk out to the back porch. I’d plug it in and cycle through my music: Alvin and the Chipmunks, Wham!, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, the soundtrack from Annie. All of this would play under the gentle, watchful hand of Mickey Mouse. It was, after all, a Mickey Mouse record player. Mickey’s head was painted across the entirety of the inside of the plastic case, and his arm held the needle, underneath an outstretched fingertip.
Out there on the back porch, my dolls and I would sing and groove along to my strange and versatile lineup of music, watching the squirrels climb the trees as the Spanish moss blew gently on a warm, wet Florida afternoon.
The other way I experienced music as a kid was by making it. The television in the living room was housed in a giant entertainment center that was built over and around the upright piano. With four kids in the house, this meant there was no watching television until we were all done practicing our piano. Later, I took up the flute because I could practice it in my room, in private. Later than that, the guitar. And then there was no looking back. I’d get into a groove by blasting the everlovingcrap out of my CD player — Nirvana, REM, Babes in Toyland, Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield Three. Then I would sit on the edge of my waterbed and try to land on the three chords that could be a vehicle for something like the truth.
Music and I took off on the open road — a box full of cassettes in the passenger’s seat got played in a battery powered karaoke machine that doubled as a really, really crappy guitar amp (my ’89 Toyota Corolla didn’t have a tape deck, much less a CD player). My guitar lived in the back seat. Even when I wasn’t on the road somewhere, I never went anywhere without my instrument. Home for the holidays? Guitar came with me. Skiing in Colorado? Had to bring the guitar.
Am I making myself clear here? Music was an experience. It was a thread that wove through my life. I was either making it or stopping everything to get close to it, as it poured out of speakers and layed foundations for my thoughts and feelings to take a breather.
I was a musician from the time I was four or five. So, my experience with music is a little different from people who didn’t grow up making music. But, I reckon the record player story isn’t unique to me. I reckon the road trips with some jerry-rigged way to control the flow of music, isn’t unique to me.
To my point:
Last week, I received a copy of the new Punch Brothers record, Phosphorescent Blues, in the mail. The cover shows a pair of lovers, presumably a man and a woman, kissing through hoods that cover both of their faces. No matter how close they get, no matter how much love and desire exists between them, these hoods keep them separate. There’s no actual connection, despite the urge for one. You have to assume they went in for the kiss knowing it could never be. There’s tension in the implication — we will, as humans, always go for the connection no matter what. Even if we’ve put ourselves, or found ourselves, in a position where we are too tethered to disconnections to make an actual connection.
It’s some deep shit. And that’s only the jacket art.
The music on Phosphorescent Blues is tremendous. These are, after all, five of the most dexterous, creative, imaginative musicians working in any area of music today. We should be so lucky that their allegiance is to bluegrass instruments, even if it’s not even loosely bluegrass music that they’re making. After all, that means their mainstream success is probably going to be limited, allowing them the time and space to continue to be so imaginative.
They’ve pulled together eleven songs that comment on where we are with music these days: coming out of our phones and little computer speakers, tablets, and other devices. We can carry music with us wherever we go, but not like a girl with a guitar in the back seat and a box full of cassettes in the front. Nothing as messy as that. Music is with us, neatly, tied up in a bow in our pocket. Accessible anytime we want to click on a phosphorescent light. Which is all the time.
“Familiarity” opens the disc, jumping from classical-style arpeggios to something that approximates bloops and bleeps of EDM (albeit on instruments like mandolin and banjo) to dancey rhythms that sound a little like Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback,” to something like prayerful chant, until the whole song is consumed by a great wave and the voices fade into oblivion, a distant echo, the wave has washed away the humans and left just sound, and something like light.
Then, out of the dark comes Thile’s mandolin, gently, with a fireside vibe, backed by guitar and banjo, and it gives way to a hum that leads them into a neighboring key.
“Til I fear the space between my breaths,” he sings softly, gentlly, reclaiming the space and the air. Gone is the cacophany. These guys have clawed us back to the woods. I’m reminded of the closing scene in Fahrenheit 451, when the world is burning and out in the wilderness are some guys around a campfire with books. “I see an edge where I don’t love you like I can ’cause I’ve forgotten how it feels. Amen.”
All of this happens in the first song. Granted, it’s a ten-and-a-half-minute song. But it’s necessary. We needed that. I needed that. And from there, the Punch Brothers carry us along, through some intense originals and two covers, beginning with one incredibly well-delivered Debussy tune. Of course, it matters that Thile veered from his Bach obsession to deliver a Debussy tune. Claude Debussy, the impressionist who defied rhythm and tone and predictability. His compositions are more about color — painting new pictures, drawing scenes with sound. He borrowed from visual art and literary movements more than he did the composers who came before him. His music is not easy to dig into. It’s challenging, on purpose. He required us to take new steps, to step away from ourselves and reconsider our priorities. If these guys were going to cover anything on this album, a Debussy instrumental was a perfect choice. And, it shows up in track three — the big pivot. It’s as if the Punch Brothers have met the world where it is, taken it back to their workshop, and then spun it in a new direction.
Once turned around, we’re taken through more originals, including the radio-friendly “I Blew It Off,” back to Lead Belly’s “Boll Weevil” — another reminder of where we’ve come from, and the closest thing to actual bluegrass on the disc — and then to a Prelude from Alexander Scriabin, of all people. Similar to Debussy, Scriabin was into symbolism and developed an affection for atonal composing. He was a follower of theosophy — a philosophy that seeks direct knowledge from the mysticism of nature. These things matter, because no doubt the Punch Brothers selected his Prelude knowing how his personal philosophies — which drove his music in spades — fit into their artistic statement here.
The album closes with “Little Lights” — an ode on the smartphone addiction that inspired the disc in the first place.
Shine little lights of ours
Like Orion’s belt of stars
Connected only from afar
The song plays on the traditional children’s song-cum-social justice anthem “This Little Light of Mine” — a song whose lyrics are meant to remind us of our own individual potential. A song meant to remind us of who we are and what we have to offer the world. And, as the song plays out, it moves into a monotone chorus of disciples:
Shine little lights of ours
Like Orion’s belt of stars
Guide us back to where we are
From where we wanna be.
Put that in your car and drive it.