The title seems almost like a joke at first. After all, how could a pack of string music renegades like the Punch Brothers, the oldest member of which is barely in his 30s, name their newest album Who's Feeling Young Now?
Then you start wondering just how literally you want to take these guys. Is the title suggesting a touch of weariness at spending nearly every waking moment on the road since the quintet's first album surfaced four years ago? Is it a cry to be taken seriously as learned string music stylists? Or is it simply the gray timbre of the aggressively patterned songs coming to a head?
Maybe it's a bit of all three. Mostly, Who's Feeling Young Now? is the combination of five bluegrass-bred players laying waste to acoustic music expectations — even the kind bolstered over the years with the jazz and classical accents of "new grass" contemporaries. This is very much a rugged pop album with shades of rockish anguish. It's just that the music is presented, as it was on the first two Punch Brothers albums, with traditional bluegrass instrumentation.
"A word can break as easy as it's spoken, snarled or sworn," sings Chris Thile during the wistful No Concern of Yours. The gray sentiments are fleshed out initially with the distant, delicate banjo reverie of Noam Pikelny and the darkly bowed bass of Paul Kowert. Fiddler Gabe Witcher turns up the tension as the tune gathers steam. Riding shotgun are Chris Eldridge's brittle guitar chatter and Thile's mandolin charge. The latter two provide the closest thing to a percussion feel on Who's Feeling Young Now? But make no mistake. These acoustic tunes have a potent if somewhat jagged momentum. For proof, check out the propulsive, almost minimalistic Movement and Location and the dusty strut of Hundred Dollars.
But at the other extreme sits Patchwork Girlfriend, a Tom Waits-style show tune full of sly, fractured rhythmic shifts and Thile's muted singing. And for a truly far-out (strung-out?) string excursion, we have the Punch Brothers' take on Radiohead's Kid A with queasy bass turns, mandolin pops and assorted scraps simulating the original version's static-y ambience.
There is a certain air on the latter that brings to mind another pioneering string ensemble, the Kronos Quartet. Kronos, however, either commissions or covers its work. But the bulk of Who's Feeling Young Now? — from the tunes to the combustive acoustic interplay — comes right from Punch Brothers' crafty little minds and fingers.
Bluegrass? Maybe that's what these songs hinted at in their infancy. On Who's Feeling Young Now?, they emerge as adults roaming and ruminating with a suitably restless maturity.
(Punch Brothers will play The Kentucky Theatre in Lexington on April 17 as part of the Troubador Concert Series.)