There is no quick, easy way to comment on the latest album from the Punch Brothers. Hell on Church Street is a reimagining of the late Tony Rice’s masterpiece solo album, Church Street Blues. Taken simply as a cover of a covers album, it’s easy on the ears and flows well from song to song. There are enough fantastical swells and acrobatic instrumental breaks to wow an audience. But if you care to dig down further, boy is there some goodness in store.
Tony Rice was nothing if not entirely original. He seemed to understand that there was nobody else who could do what he could. Similarly, the Punch Brothers will never sound like anyone other than Punch Brothers. No other collection of five individuals could do what these guys can. And, while they may have intended to pay tribute to Rice, they are also in essence paying tribute to one another. After all, here are five players who are experts on their instruments. Every Punch Brothers record and performance gives them room to shine. But great music isn’t just about showing up and showing off. A great band must master the art of space and timing, or else wind up with everything in a chaotic mess of mastery.
The way Punch Brothers most often do this—and certainly one of this album’s greatest assets—is through their use of texture. Take for example the instrumental, “Cattle in the Cane.” Rice recorded this as a solo guitar instrumental. With five instruments, there was room for Punch Brothers to blow it way out. And they did, but with enough restraint as to keep it recognizable. It begins with Chris Thile’s mandolin. Then comes Noam Pikelny’s banjo, matching Thile note for note. Chris Eldridge enters third, joining in perfect unison on guitar. The tie that pieces each entrance together is Gabe Witcher’s violin, sawing quietly in the distance like a needle and thread. When the time is right, Witcher steps to the front and rails. Through it all, Paul Kowert’s bass keeps it tethered to the earth.
As the song unfolds further, the sawing turns to chopping. The meandering runs turn to staccato rhythms. Pikelny’s banjo joins forces with Eldridge’s guitar and off they run together. It is all woven so tight and close, the players have to be hyper-focused on one another. They have to listen and watch and trust and follow. You get the sense that if anyone’s eye so much as twitches, the whole thing could fall apart, but Punch Brothers know how to keep it together.
There are so many places where their delivery is this perfect and precarious—the eight-count between the first two lines of the chorus of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time”; Witcher’s ghostly fiddling behind the first few notes of “House Carpenter – Jerusalem Ridge,” which makes you feel like the whole thing might blow away; so much of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—but Punch Brothers are seasoned tightrope walkers. They always deliver you back to the ground.
If you need good music just to fill the speakers, you’ll find that here. If you need to be reminded of how much support and purpose a group of humans are capable of accomplishing together, even when so many forces in the world are trying to keep them apart, Hell on Church Street has that on offer too.
Hell on Church Street is available HERE.
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