Updated: Dec 10, 2019
I have long been a fan of Chris Thile and his numerous projects and collaborations but recently realized that while much has been written about him and his most recent band Punch Brothers, there hasn't been much written about how his music works on a theoretical and analytical level. As a theory nerd who enjoys transcribing things, I thought I'd take a deeper look into some of Punch Brother's tunes to see what kinds of interesting nuggets I might dig up...and this will be where I will display those nuggets (and transcriptions).
The first song I will look at is "Magnet" from the album "Phosphorescent Blues", one of the most "pop" and straight-forward (on the surface) Punch Brothers' songs.
The song opens with a big, gnarly E7#9 chord, which is the exact same chord Cream's "I Feel Free" opens with. You can compare the intros in the videos below. It's probably just coincidence and most people wouldn't even realize it unless they too went through a pretty hard-core Cream phase in their late teens.
Regardless, it's important to note that the E7#9 implies a dominant function in the key of A. The verse commences immediately after that chord but is underscored by the primary riff of the tune in the surprising key of G minor (not A minor as we were expecting). It should also be stated that this tune is held together by two two-measure riffs or hooks (labeled riff 1 and riff 2 in the transcription). Riff 1 is repeated twice in G minor before finally moving up a step to the anticipated key of A minor. The verse continues to oscillate between G minor and A minor by simply transposing riff 1, refusing to establish either key as foundational.
The pre-chorus follows and seems to settle the dispute by firmly establishing A minor as the key. This stability can only be sustained to the end of the pre-chorus when the surprising arrival of an E-flat diminished chord (though smoothed-out by an ascending bass line approach) hurdles the song into the chorus and into the equally unexpected key of B minor!
The chorus is driven by the second hook of the song (riff 2) and firmly establishes the key of B minor by sheer repetition. The chorus's progression Bm - G - E7 (i - VI - IV7) ends on the same E dominant chord from the beginning (this time minus the added dissonance) and is used in the same way to launch back to the verse in G minor. It's only after the chorus that we realize that the opening chord in the song wasn't a V in A minor but a IV in B minor.
The key relationship between the verse and chorus is a chromatic mediant since the roots (G and B) are a third away. While distantly related (Gm=2 flats, Bm=3 sharps), the relationship between the triads is smoothed by one shared pitch (D) and the use of quickly transposed riffs that act like connective tissue between the different structural limbs of the song. This chromatic mediant connectivity is exploited even further in the second chorus when riff 2 takes an unexpected two-measure jaunt to D minor before returning back a minor third to B minor as if nothing ever happened.
I can't help but think that these quickly moving chromatic mediants help serve the lyric in "Magnet". The song describes a dysfunctional relationship between two people who keep pushing each other away because of their own self-centeredness. Harmonically, the two key areas of G minor and B minor have their own warring magnetism that is constantly influx until the final resolution of the song.
One last thing....the end of the song reaches a dizzying intensity thanks to: an increase in instrumental activity, texture, and volume; a climbing vocal line where Chris Thile reaches a high B-flat(!); and a clever change of phrasing. Until the end, the entire song uses even-numbered phrase lengths (4 or 8 measures). For example, the second part of the chorus is four measures long with one chord per measure (Bm-G-E7-E7). Yet when that same phrase is repeated at the end, the fourth measure is omitted. This compresses the phrase length to three measures (Bm-G-E7) that upon repetition, creates the necessary propulsion needed to reach the final climax. Very clever and effective!
You've made it to the end! Here's the complete lead-sheet transcription: Magnet
Make sure to check out this live performance of Magnet (note: there's about 20 seconds of tuning before the song actually begins...)