Like a toddy for the soul

Staff writerNovember 5, 2010 

  • Who: Punch Brothers

    When: 8 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Cat's Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro

    Cost: $18 advance, $22 day of show

    Details: catscradle.com or 967-9053

Naming an album can be like naming a child. You spend a lot of time trying on names for size, mostly to rule them out. Punch Brothers went through a bunch of prospective titles for their latest album before settling on the mysterious moniker "Antifogmatic" at the suggestion of banjo player Noam Pikelny's brother - who picked up on the album's themes of consumption.

"Yeah, we were looking for titles, and we were at that stage where everything is fair game," says guitarist Chris Eldridge, calling from his home in New York. "So we sounded the alarm to family and friends, and 'Antifogmatic' is what Noam's brother came back with.

"Drinking is definitely something that occurs throughout the record," Eldridge adds. "A lot of the songs involve alcohol in one way or another, and Noam's brother was scouring drinking-term websites when he found the word 'Antifogmatic.' It's the bracing beverage you drink to ward off the cold on a foggy, bone-chilling kind of day, which seemed like a nice idea for a record. Maybe we can provide spiritual antifogmatic."

"Antifogmatic" is indeed warm, an elegant picking session that bridges the gap between bluegrass and classical music. And if you've never thought of such a gap as something that needs bridging, that can mean only that you've never heard the Punch Brothers.

Mandolinist Chris Thile is the most famous Punch Brother, thanks to his time in the platinum-selling new-bluegrass band Nickel Creek. Thile always had an eccentric streak in Nickel Creek, such as throwing in the occasional cover of '90s college-radio band Pavement. But that's nothing compared with Punch Brothers. Exhibit A is "The Blind Leaving the Blind," a very intricate four-movement/40-minute suite from 2008's "Punch."

"We all like classical music," Eldridge says. "We're fans of the rigor and the development that takes place. Some of us have conservatory training, but we pretty much all come from the folk world. Bluegrass is more of an oral tradition, and most of us are more comfortable in a song-based approach to music. 'Blind' was such a challenging, technical, different thing."

Fast and shifting

"Antifogmatic" doesn't have anything quite so elaborate, although it does boast lots of lightning-fast string work and turn-on-a-dime shifts. But for all the virtuosity the quintet brings to the proceedings, this is still as loose as Punch Brothers have ever sounded. Eldridge cites the influence of producer Jon Brion (best-known for his pop productions of Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright), and the song "The Woman and the Bell" - a rollicking number the group had never played live before recording.

"Maybe because we didn't feel entirely super-comfortable with that one, it's always on the edge of crashing," Eldridge says. "But it never does. I feel such a sense of tension to that one. It takes you on a physical journey. My body clinches and unclinches when I listen to that. And that's something Jon Brion really tried to impart, the idea that you want music to connect to the body. If somebody is tapping their foot or moving their hips without realizing it, your music is connecting on a deeper human level.

"We can get fairly intellectual, too much so," Eldridge concludes. "We all grew up with traditional music, which comes from dance music. Jon was great about reminding us of that: 'Nobody can accuse you of being too intellectual if they're moving their body to it.'"

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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