The first thing to be stressed is that The Punch Brothers is a band.
Well, above that, even, is that its members aren’t really brothers, except in spirit.
The next thing to understand is that, despite mandolinist Chris Thile’s initiative in bringing this new-generation pack of progressively minded, bluegrass-bred string players together, The Punch Brothers is not some fleeting project or pick-up unit the now-former member of Nickel Creek has chosen to spearhead.
“The band is definitely a band,” Thile said. “It’s not my band. It’s our band.”
It all began with a four-movement piece called “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Then came a solo album by Thile called “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground,” which offered a mix of traditional, contemporary and altogether unassociated bluegrass styles.
The ensemble was formally dubbed The How to Grow a Band after the album’s release in the fall of 2006.
The group became The Tensions Mountain Boys this time last year and premiered “The Blind Leaving the Blind” at Carnegie Hall.
Now we have the Thile opus on a record along with four shorter, group-composed pieces that maintain bluegrass instrumentation but leave behind string-music tradition in favor of classical, jazz and New Grass-style inspiration.
The record is called Punch. And the band? Well, it is now The Punch Brothers, of course.
On its few scattered vocal segments, all of which are sung by Thile, Nickel Creek’s wistful, almost poppish melancholy emerges.
Aside from that, though, the stylistic barriers come down fast. There are organizational traits of a string quartet in terms of tonality and tempo, areas of dizzying instrumental runs that would shame the most practiced of bluegrass pickers, and a jazzlike sensibility, especially in the bass work of Greg Garrison, that opens the music up.