Personally, I’ve always felt Punch Brothers were a critically under-recognised band. That, and that they’re everything Mumford and Sons want to be, but aren’t. Then again, that sort of thing is to be expected when you play in a genre as niche as progressive bluegrass. The five-piece folk group is led by lead singer and virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile, previously of the band Nickel Creek. To give an idea of the complexity of Punch Brothers’ music, Thile has previously been awarded the prestigious, $500,000 MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ for his approach to song-writing. Combine that with the fact that the band’s first album contained a forty-minute suite, and you’ll start to get an idea of the type of band Punch Brothers are.
This EP is essentially an extra morsel of music, left over from the phenomenal The Phosphorescent Blues released earlier this year. Over the course of its five tracks, The Wireless gives off the same atmosphere of sophistication and exuberance as its parent LP, yet mostly in a calmer manner. Wonder’s opening violin notes remind me – for some reason – of a tambura drone. The notes swell and intertwine with the delicate vocal harmonies before giving way to lightly picked mandolin and guitar. As the song develops, it evokes in me the same open-country rambling feelings that early Led Zeppelin’s folk excursions did when I first heard them.
The Hops of Guldenberg sees the band waste no time in diving straight into a sleek instrumental piece. The EP’s fourth track (No More. Yet) is another compelling instrumental, albeit faster paced than its counterpart. This track highlights one of the most interesting elements of Punch Brothers’ music – its cohesiveness. If you were to hear the tracks of the individual instruments, they may sound fractured and incomplete alone, yet when played together the notes collude wonderfully into an ocean of colour and melody. The auditory jigsaw put together by the players makes this track sound a little like a folk-inspired, more melodic King Crimson cover. As powerful as Thile’s singing can be, it’s refreshing to hear a band that know the voice isn’t always the most important instrument – a realisation which would do many modern groups a world of good.
EP centrepiece Sleek White Baby is a complete contrast to these pieces. Warm, soft vocals are accompanied by an unsettling spoken narration, which helps hammer home the track’s anti-technology warning. Fans of the US version of The Office may recognise the narrator as Ed Helms – voice of the show’s Andy Bernard. The track is essentially a protest and a warning against the influx of unnecessary technological accessories, and the generation of people unable to pull away from their screens and unplug. This is likely how the EP title The Wireless came about.
“If you fail to buy our prized new machine (why would you do that?) You will find yourself stung by the sting (it’s painful, really it is) Of gloom and misery, pal, you will die alone (that doesn’t sound pleasant, does it?) Alone, alone, alone, alone – oooh”
The melodic and easy-going nature of the song only serves to highlight its ominous lyrics, as Thile casually reminds the listener “pal, you will die alone”. Only by allocating more of our time irreverent technological developments can we stave off the grim reaper’s icy claws. The satire is palpable here.
The EP is closed with the earnest Clementine – a quintessential Punch Brothers track. Subtle yet moving instrumentation and gentle vocals finish off the EP in a lovely way, as Thile sings “Keep that song out of your mind”. Nice advice, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to. Do yourself a favour and check out this EP.