REVIEW: Punch Brothers’ “All Ashore” Struts Their Instrumental Virtuosity

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Talents are rarely given to people in equal measure. Take me: my verbal facility is much stronger than my mathematical ability. This doesn’t mean I have poor mathematical abilities; my abilities in math are still well, well above average, while my verbal skills are through the roof. Something similar is at work on the Punch Brothers’ new album, All Ashore.

The Punch Brothers – mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler and violinist Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge , and bassist Paul Kowert – are undisputed masters of their instruments. In progressive bluegrass, there is perhaps no one better than these men. That makes it difficult for their songwriting to keep up with instrumental virtuosity. This is not to say that their songwriting isn’t good, but that the instrumentals here are that much better.

Peak-level songwriting and instrumental ability don’t come paired together that often. In comparing Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 guitarists and songwriters, only 15 names appear on both. These are all iconic artists, and except for Willie Nelson, they are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Muddy Waters, one of the greatest bluesmen, didn’t make the cut for songwriting, and Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon barely snuck in as guitarists. There’s no shame in being either a better instrumentalist or songwriter. Most artists excel more at one then the other.

The lyrics here are still strong enough that they combine with the outstanding instrumentals to create a consistent nine-song cycle. The tone of the songs is bright, even buoyant throughout, and the lyrics and singing style reflect the influence of hip-hop, to the point of Chris Thile’s vocals bordering on rap at times. (Is there anything Chris Thile can’t do?) The instrumentals, third track “Three Dots and a Dash” and seventh track “Jungle Bird,” come in just the right place in the album, creating separation between distinct sections of the album.

Phosphorescent Blues, the Punch Brothers last album, was a masterpiece, and it created expectations. It’s unfair to judge this album by those expectations. Viewed on its own merits, this is a fine album, very well worth your time.  Get yours here https://www.punchbrothers.com/

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