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Album Review: Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues

3 min read

The Punch Brothers’ Phosphorescent Blues is an airhead in hipster clothing: although it might appear unusual and rebellious on the outside, spend any time in its company and you’ll soon realize it has little to say.

Punch Brothers - The Phosphorescent BluesThe album is a work full of pretentious cross-referencing, with the work of two great classical composers adapted for some insultingly insipid covers:Passepied (Debussy) and Prelude (Scriabin).  Even the brilliant Magritte work adopted for the cover artwork is a foolhardy attempt to appear arty.

Beginning the album with the ten minute plus Familiarity is an ambitious move, but you need talent to back up ambition, and there is nothing in the song to justify its running time. Even before a full minute of the tune has passed, Familiarity has worn out its welcome. Although Punch Brothers are ostensibly a bluegrass band, the song plays like a watered down version of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android, complete with layered vocals and a dismal attempt at tonal mashup. It’s a hollow, ultimately worthless trip, and a foot in a dangerously dull direction.

Julep feels as though it was made for an artsy car advertisement – it’s all surface level style – and the repeated phrase “I died happy in my sleep” must have sounded much better on paper than it does sung aloud.

The worst of the bad bunch is I Blew It Off, a song that boasts more laughably dumb lyrical content, and Magnet is a foolhardy attempt to mix bluegrass riffs and pop rock choruses with a set of annoyingly insistent vocals, complete with phrases so poorly written and melodramatic they could have been lifted directly from the diary of a love sick 13 year old.

My Oh My is more traditionally bluegrass, but its thigh slapping high clappin’ tone is halted in its tracks by a few terribly misjudged changes in tone, as the mood dips so suddenly that it sours any entertainment value that the song might have had. Boll Weevil is the album’s best (read: least awful) track, as it keeps things admirably and enjoyably simple. There’s not much to it, but thank God for that: it’s one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t reek of a band trying far too hard.

Forgotten and Between 1st and A come with significant flaws, but together they comprise another of the album’s few highpoints – now and then a genuinely interesting turn of phrase or riff manages to sneak through the dull tunes. Sadly, Little Lights closes out the album as it began – with the annoying tone of that bore at a party who introduces themselves as a ‘poet.’

I’ve always argued that any music that takes risks is worth something. I still stand by that: although The Phosphorescent Blues may appear to be playing with genre and tone in an interesting way, there are no risks taken here. This is a path that has been walked by a great many more interesting and successful artists. It’s a trip to a place you already know, with a pretentious group of musicians as your guide.

5 thoughts on “Album Review: Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues

  1. Heya John! Thanks for the comment. I agree with you about the fact that the band members themselves seem far from pretentious – indeed, in interviews, they come across as humble – but I was referring to the music itself rather than the guys who make it. By pretentious I’m referring to the fact that they name drop classical composers and artists for no foreseeable rhyme or reason, and the fact that the music itself gives off an air of complication that (in my opinion, of course), ultimately just turns out to be musical tricks that other musicians have successfully achieved many times before in the past.
    Again, thanks for the comment – it’s always grand to hear another opinion.

  2. I think the purpose of Punch Brothers has been missed here. While aesthetically they may be a bluegrass band, they have always said that bluegrass is not the sort of music they are making. While it may have some bluegrass influences, they’re always looking to experiment with genre. So, going into this particular album looking only to find songs like Boll Weevil, is an approach that ignores what the band is trying to do with their music. While I agree that this is not Punch Brothers’ best album, there is still enough good material there to describe this album at least as a moderate success.

  3. I preordered this album so have been listening to three of the tracks for a while. Just received my physical copy so have only spun it one time, thus far. Saying that, I really enjoy The Phosphorescent Blues. As with all Punch Brothers cds (and I have them all), I will say that the band sometimes tries harder than they have too. Still, I would never call it pretentious music, myself. Experimental, maybe. Yet, I always enjoy the experience. Sorry The Phosphorescent Blues isn’t your cup of julep.

  4. I’m sorry but this is the worst review I’ve ever read. Dude, you must get help. Now. Maybe then you could actually contribute instead of complain. That I even comment on your little attack is unlike me. And the world laughs.

    P.S. I think Punch Brothers is one of the best bands today!! D.S.

    1. Hi Jens. The reason why you disapprove of this particular review is because of the final P.S comment – they are a band you like. I also wouldn’t like someone talking negatively about my favorite artist however it is important to understand or at least hear out the opinions of others whether you may or may not like what you read or hear. As music reviewers we need to take a completely unbiased approach to records we listen to. We appreciate your feedback nonetheless.

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