Every once in a while, I’ll be watching a drummer go to town during a rhythmically demanding section of a song, and I’ll say to myself, “That dude is an alien.” Certain drummers have that extra gear that makes it look like they’re working with more than two arms and two legs — how else could they be doing so much at once and/or making so much noise? Not so coincidentally, I described Battles’ John Stanier as “otherworldly” when I witnessed his handiwork at the 9:30 Club a few months back, and I’d be inclined to throw that same adjective at Wilco’s Glen Kotche, especially when it comes to his chaotic outbursts in “Via Chicago.”
So what the hell does this have to do with Punch Brothers?!? They don’t even have a drummer!
I’m glad you asked! Chris Thile, the group’s frontman and mandolin player, is one of the few people outside the world of stick-wielding snare-strikers that produces that same super-specific, disbelieving reaction: “That dude is an alien.” And I’m not alone — Ed Helms from The Office has had the exact same thought.
For me, I think it’s his unnatural level of control that puts him in flying saucer territory. His voice rises and falls with such ease and precision that it seems like he’ll never hit a bad note, and his facility with the mandolin is just as commanding. And then there’s his mastery of time. When you pair Thile’s finely tuned internal metronome with the percussive personality of the mandolin, what results is the musical equivalent of the remote Adam Sandler uses in Click (No, I didn’t actually see Click. I think someone told me at one point that they liked it, though. It did get a 33 on Rotten Tomatoes, which is 30 points higher than what Jack and Jill got, and it made $237,681,299 at the box office. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’…). And since everyone knows that Click is a movie (fictional) and that Chris Thile is an actual human being playing an actual instrument (nonfictional), the obvious conclusion is that he’s an alien. It’s the only way he could be flaunting the advanced technology Adam Sandler could only dream about.
Even with pieces of music that go way beyond the comfort zone of bluegrass, all the way to the extreme discomfort zones of some of Radiohead’s least accessible tunes, Thile and his group handle polyrhythms, dissonance and noise adeptly. For example, the group covers “Kid A” on their new album Who’s Feeling Young Now?, and as chaotic and dark as the song gets, every single note still feels like it’s, to put things in Thom Yorke’s* vernacular, in it’s right place.
Check out “Kid A” below, along with Punch Brothers’ cover of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” and click here to snag their new album from iTunes. In the meantime, I’ll be calling Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
Punch Brothers — “Kid A” (Radiohead cover)
Punch Brothers — “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” (Radiohead cover)
*Don’t get me started on whether Thom Yorke is an alien. We’ll be here all night.