"Antifogmatic", the Punch Brothers newest release, is a bit of bygone slang that mandolinist Chris Thile and his band mates stumbled across, "an old term," explains the Punch Brothers founder, "for a bracing beverage, rum or whiskey, that one would have in the morning before going out to work in rough weather, to stave off any ill effects." It's an apt title for the Punch Brothers' second Nonesuch disc. This ten-song set of collectively written material takes a clear-eyed view of those things less tangible than liquor that can make us woozy: the pleasures and pitfalls of romance, the seemingly limitless possibilities and multifarious temptations of life in the big city.
"When we heard that term," says Thile, "it was so easily applied to the bulk of the record. We want our music to be something that people can sink their teeth into, if not help make sense of all the various things happening to them. We want to pat them on the head and slap them in the face and tell them everything will be okay."
The arrangements on Antifogmatic range from intimate to boisterous and back; genre-wise, the band once again ventures where no string band has ever gone before. The spare opening track "You Are" contrasts percussive guitar riffs with lyrical string parts that dance around Thile's sweet upper register as he spins a tale of romantic emancipation; occasionally, the other instruments give way to reveal the throb of the bass. The band also engages in some unexpectedly beautiful harmony singing, smoothing out the compelling melodic twists and turns of "Welcome Home." "Me and Us" and "Woman and the Bell" both have a dream-like quality; the former, in fact, was inspired by those jumbled, thought-filled moments before sleep sets in, and the instrumentation keeps pace with the ever-shifting imagery. In contrast, "Don't Need No" and "Rye Whiskey" are foot-stomping barroom boasts and "Next to the Trash" is the closest the band gets to traditional bluegrass, even as the lyrics tug the piece in a more surreal direction.
Thile has earned the right to impart a bit of his own hard-earned wisdom in the lyrics he's contributed to Antifogmatic, which the quintet cut live at Ocean Way in Los Angeles with producer Jon Brion and engineer Gregg Koller. At the heart of the Punch Brothers' 2008 debut, Punch, Thile's four-movement "The Blind Leaving the Blind" chronicled in cathartic detail the events and faith-shaking emotions surrounding the dissolution of his youthful marriage. The musically rigorous, personally revealing composition-carefully notated but allowing room for improvisational passages-came to vivid life in the hands of the former Nickel Creek singer's old friends and newly recruited band mates: guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjo player Noam Pikelny, violinist Gabe Witcher and bassist Greg Garrison, each of whom were already envelope-pushing figures in the forefront of modern bluegrass, folk and country. (After the departure of Garrison, Paul Kowert, a member of mandolinist Mike Marshall's Big Trio, stepped in.) "The Blind Leading the Blind" was bracketed by four collaboratively conceived instrumental pieces from this freshly minted group, a foretaste of what was to come two years later on Antifogmatic. Upon the release of Punch, the Washington Post described this then-new band as "some of the best string-band pickers of the new generation, and Thile has given them rich, challenging music to wrestle with."
Says guitarist Eldridge, "We got to find out what the band sounded like when we tried to collectively make music from scratch. A song might start with something as simple as a phrase that everybody thought was cool and worthy of development, maybe a set of chord changes, maybe more than that. Everyone was bringing things to the table and putting them in front of the band's collective consciousness to try to build them into something together. It was a pretty neat experience to see how things took shape that way. It really happened completely before our eyes."
The process of creating the work that would ultimately comprise Antifogmatic also happened before the eyes-and ears-of many Punch Brothers fans in New York City, where the members of this former "commuter band," as Pikelny characterized it, had all decided to relocate. In early 2009, the quintet began a monthly residency at The Living Room, a small club on Manhattan's Lower East Side, for what they dubbed P-Bingo Nights, a laboratory for developing new material and trying out songs of any genre that struck their fancy-and, as countless YouTube fan videos attest, for having a good time.
As violinist Witcher, who moved to the city from his lifelong home of Los Angeles, recalls, "We were finally able to hang out and play music for fun, when we weren't trying to frantically warm up for a show or frantically go into the studio to record. We started doing these shows in New York-informal performances where the goal was to try out a bunch of stuff that we never had the time to do before or that wouldn't necessarily be right for our live show. In doing so, we started saying, like, ‘Hey, do you think we could work up this Strokes song? Sure. Oh man, I really love the fourth movement of this Mozart Quartet. What if we tried to do that? Absolutely!' Anything we felt excited about, any piece of music, we tried to see if we could arrange for our ensemble. It was challenging, fun, and kind of successful.
The stories the Punch Brothers tell in Antifogmatic-partly autobiographical, partly imagine-were shaped by after-hours camaraderie as much as musical collaboration; they're ultimately about drinking everything in as well as drinking what's in front of them up.
For concert tickets and information, call the Luhrs Center Box Office at 717.477.SHOW (7469) or visit the Luhrs Center website at www.luhrscenter.com. A group discount is available for groups of 20 or more.