Unslushed because: Nonesuch is always good for handsome packaging. (Did you know that the deluxe cardboard sleeve—inside which the jewel case nestles—is called an “O-card”?) There was a little sticker on this one saying the Punch Brothers feature Chris Thile from Nickel Creek. I don’t know who Chris Thile is, or, for that matter, who Nickel Creek is, but surely it’s good that Somebody from Some Band is on this album. Plus he plays mandolin, and the other dudes play guitar, bass, banjo, and fiddle. Beautiful instruments.
Factors not initially considered: Four of the CD’s songs make up a centerpiece suite, “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Once I removed the O-card (actually, O-cards are a pain in the ass, to be honest) to get at the liner notes, I learned that the four “movements” clock in at 12:13, 9:22, 11:58, and 8:38. That’s a combined 42:01. Four additional songs push the album’s total time to 57 minutes.
On further review: An hour of pure torture from the first bloodless, immaculate chord. Playing in a big, cold New York City studio, the Punch Brothers haven’t the slightest punch at all, instead falling back on absolutely endless classical- and jazz-inflected noodling and pretentious, freeform lyrics. It’s kind of as if the Kronos Quartet picked up Appalachian instruments, or if Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit decided to go unplugged. Yes, the playing is taut and virtuosic, with drastic fluctuations in tempo and dynamics. Yes, it’s probably all above my head, and no, I couldn’t write a 42-minute bluegrass-fusion suite myself. But that still doesn’t mean I want to listen to one, much less one that’s sung by a guy who sounds like Edie Brickell. For all the stops and starts, louds and softs, this music remains chillingly dispassionate; for all the (I once thought) unimpeachable humanity of its acoustic instruments, it might as well be played by robots. And not just any robots. Lame robots.