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Punch Brothers at the peak of their powers on ‘All Ashore’

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For a dozen years, Punch Brothers have been delivering a singular brand of progressive-bluegrass-Americana beyond compare, both on record and in concert.

About the band’s fifth full-length recorded effort - they’ve also issued two Eps - “All Ashore” (out July 20 from Nonesuch), lead singer and mandolinist Chris Thile says “We were hoping we could create a thing that would be convincing as a complete thought – sort of a nine-movement or a nine-song thought…”

Musical virtuosos, Punch Brothers infuse elements of classical music into their sound, much like they’ve been known to do with blues, jazz, rock, folk and world music. They do it not to show off but to serve the song.

The band’s first self-produced effort, “All Ashore” is a band-composed affair, written and recorded in sequence. “In doing so, we were really able to construct the narrative, musically and lyrically,” according to violinist Gabe Witcher.

The narrative on “All Ashore” is a subtle commentary on life in the present day and how the increasingly-busy quintet (and their listeners) fit within. Each member of Punch Brothers has been juggling family demands, side-projects and band-commitments for years.

Thile was tapped as host of “Live from Here” (formerly Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”) in 2016. He first appeared on Keillor’s radio show at the age of 15 and returned numerous times as a solo artist, as a member of Nickel Creek and as a member of Punch Brothers. In 2017, Thile released a disc of songs composed for the radio show called “Thanks for Listening.”

This may seem like an unusual observation but the first thing I took note of when listening to “All Ashore” was the presence of glorious analog tape hiss. Few artists record on old-school analog tape these days, usually because recording digitally is considerably cheaper and faster. That Punch Brothers are still buying very expensive reels of tape tells me they care deeply about sound quality. Digital recording has come a long way since the sterile sound of the 1980s, but it still can’t compare with overall tone afforded by recording in analog. Your mileage may vary.

The sound of “All Ashore” is rich, warm, dry and woodsy. It’s akin to what it might sound like to hear the band perform the album in your living room.

The opening title track sets the stage for the album with a tale of an exhausted mom and dad trying to navigate the demands of the day while keeping that loitering wolf at the door at bay. “The Angel of Doubt” references sleeplessness caused by our psyche’s pestering questions of self-worth: “And what if you’re wrong? Because you might be.” The instrumental “Three Dots and a Dash” demonstrates Punch Brothers’ penchant for tight dynamic interaction. It’s a remarkable piece that shifts from plaintive introspection to pedal-down revelry.

“Just Look at This Mess,” “It’s All Part of the Plan,” and “Jumbo” satirically and metaphorically cite familiar characters while the musicians instill thrilling twists and turns within the structure of the songs. It’s the sound of a band performing at the peak of their collective compositional and performance powers.

The instrumental “Jungle Bird” veers from barn-dance hoedown-mode to the sound of a summer Sunday afternoon, sipping lemonade on a porch swing.

Among the album’s most affecting songs, “The Gardener” and “Like It’s Going Out of Style” touch on family, with the former dealing with a figure who toils tirelessly in both the flowers and weeds while remaining a virtual stranger to the family living inside and the latter referencing the love of and for a partner: “Our true love is reflected in the change we embrace for one another. Our true selves live forever in the change we effect in one another.”

“All Ashore” was designed as a suite of music with each track segueing into the next, but its songs also stand alone as little nuggets of delight that seem to reveal something new upon each listen.

Guitarist Chris Eldridge says that Punch Brothers is a “lifer band” and “a thing that I expect will be a part of our lives for a long, long time.”

If you’re a Punch Brothers fan (and I am, thanks to my friends Rick and Cindy in Exeter, who’ve been telling me about them for years) you probably know that each live show they perform is a unique experience with wildly varying setlists from night to night.

(Note: Punch Brothers have scheduled a return to Portland’s State Theatre on Friday, July 27, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are available at www.StateTheatrePortland.com.)

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