Punch Brothers, led by mandolin wiz Chris Thile, strike gold anew with ‘All Ashore’ concept album


It may not take a certified genius and mandolin master to make a heady concept album billed as “a meditation on committed relationships in the present day, particularly in light of the current unsettled political climate.” But if it does, Punch Brothers’ leader Chris Thile qualifies on all counts.

A co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning trio Nickel Creek, this Oceanside native has been dazzling audiences with his jaw-dropping mandolin prowess since even before he was a teenager. Now 37, Thile’s musical command and vision have grown exponentially since then.

So has his profile.

Thile has been a recording partner of everyone from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Dixie Chicks to jazz piano star Brad Mehldau and Dolly Parton. In 2012, he became a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, a prestigious international honor more commonly referred to as the MacArthur “genius grant.”

In 2015, he made the album “Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1,” on which Thile adapted the famed composer’s most demanding solo violin pieces to mandolin. In 2016, he became Garrison Keillor’s handpicked successor to host NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion” (now known as “Live from Here”).

With Punch Brothers, the genre-leaping acoustic music band he formed in 2006, Thile has made five increasingly ambitious albums. The nine-song “All Ashore” is both their most ambitious and understated yet. It offers an enchanting blend of bluegrass, chamber music, folk, pop, blues, contemporary classical, and more, which are employed and executed with unique skill and imagination.

“We were hoping to create something that would be convincing as a complete thought, in this case as a nine-movement, or nine-piece, thought — though it’s rangy in what it’s talking about, and in the characters who are doing the talking,” Thile explained in a recent statement about the album.

That these are not the typical characters who inhabit songs is made clear from the first lines of “All Ashore’s” title track, which gently opens the album. It starts with Noam Pikelny’s banjo intro, which obliquely references the sitar figure at the start of The Beatles’ “Within You, Without You.” Thile then delicately enters on mandolin, followed by Paul Kowert on upright bass, Gabe Wichter on violin and Chris Eldridge on guitar.

Singing in a plaintive voice, Thile begins: Mama cuts like a man-of-war / Through the fog of an early morning / With nothing more than a coffee filling up her sails. A few moments later, he fills in the picture with: Daddy burns like a meteor / Through a night of his own diversions / Hoping to blaze half a second of a glowing trail.

Clocking in at just over seven minutes, it’s a daring way to start the album, which takes several airings before it really opens up and reveals its aural riches. Except for two sparkling instrumentals, “Jungle Bird” and “Three Dots and a Dash,” the six other songs that follow “All Ashore’s” title track are similarly low key in tone and delivery. They revel in hushed nuances, pinpoint dynamics and deceptively intricate song structures that twist, turn and gracefully shift gears with seamless elán.

“Just Look at This Mess” is easily one of the loveliest musical laments about any American president in memory — or at least the current president — although he is never identified here by name.

Then again, lines like “our sandlot-antagonist-cum-king” leave little doubt about whom the angelic-voiced Thile is singing about. Neither does “everybody’s business is mine, and I’ve been doing just as I please” (from “It’s All Part of the Plan”) and “with his grandpa’s money and his daddy’s heart” (from “Jumbo,” which suggests an especially inspired collaboration by Randy Newman, The Beatles and the Beach Boys).

As for the “mediation on committed relationships in the present day” that Thile cites as a prime inspiration for “All Ashore,” it may well be the relationships he cities are between our nation’s increasingly divided population.

The question now is how attentively the Punch Brothers’ audience will listen when this singular band performs these soft, unusually restrained, songs live at Observatory North Park on Aug. 25. Here’s hoping the crowd savors this exquisite music with the hushed respect it deserves, then whoops it up between songs. Orange County native Madison Cunningham opens the show.

Punch Brothers

“All Ashore”

Nonesuch Records

Punch Brothers, with Madison Cunningham

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 25

Where: Observatory North Park, 2891 University Ave., North Park

Tickets: $37 (general admission); $99 and $159 (VIP packages)

Phone: (619) 239-8836


Twitter @georgevarga