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Punch Brothers go to a rave and a church service breaks out


Here is the second part of a three-part post on "Familiarity", the ten-minute opening track from "The Phosphorescent Blues." The transcription for this section (between 1'15" and 6'00" of the track) can be found at the bottom of the post.

First off, the overall form is very straightforward. The sections and their lengths in measures can be seen below. The numbers in parenthesis show smaller phrase groupings within a section.

Intro: 12 (4+4+4)

Verse 1: 12 (4+4+4)

Transition 1: 12 (4+4+4)

Verse 2: 12 (4+4+4)

Bridge 1: 6

Transition 2: 12 (4+4+4)

Verse 3: 12 (4+4+4)

Transition 2': 4

Verse 4: 12 (4+4+4)

Transition 2': 4

Bridge 2/Ending: 6+6+8+8 (fadeout)

One interesting aspect of the form is how the second bridge morphs into the ending. The first bridge sets the lyric "We've come together over we know not what" in a hymn-like fashion only for Transition 2 to burst onto the scene with a funky dance groove on the word "what". In the second bridge, however, the lyric is extended: "We've come together over we know not what to say I love you." The last part ("to say I love") is not interrupted by a bluegrass rave but rather leads into the beautiful and plaintive ending section.

A unique feature of this tune is how it uses rhythms that don't clearly show the beat. This is seen in the section's opening gesture shown below. Notice how five of the seven attacks are not on a beat. This rhythm, foreshadowed in the first part in m. 34, obscures the 4/4 pulse until the mandolin percussion enters in m. 9.

A modified version of this rhythm appears in the "dance" section of the song in mm. 63, 79, and 95 (as shown below).

While on the topic of rhythm, the polyrhythm between the banjo triplets and the syncopated mandolin part add an interesting element of rhythmic counterpoint to the second verse.

In looking at the harmony, most of the song (other than the bridges and ending) rotates between just two chords - Bm7 (sometimes with an added 4th) and an Am7 (sometimes with an added 9th and 11th). Two minor chords a whole-step apart do not strongly imply a certain key (for an example of a song made-up almost entirely of two major chords a whole-step apart, check this out). We are left to hear the Bm7 as a centric chord by virtue of its repetition and place within each phrase. The first clear arrival on a tonal center is hinted at in Bridge 1 but does not finally arrive until the end of Bridge 2 with a cadence in E major (m. 104). If we think of the pitch E as the tonal center of the song, Bm7 and Am7 then function as the v7 and iv7 in E natural minor (or E aeolian). This also wouldn't be a Punch Brothers song if it didn't have a chromatic mediant modulation and sure enough, we get a direct modulation from E major to G major (a move a minor-third up) in m. 114.

There are a few musical and lyrical references in this section worth mentioning. First, the rapid arpeggios from Part I return at the end of Part II. Played primarily by the banjo and violin, these arpeggios mimic the mandolin line from Part I and help to connect the two parts together musically.

While I'm not the first person to make this observation, the vocal harmonies in Part II (and in other Punch Brothers songs) appear to be influenced by the Beach Boys. For comparison, listen to 4'05" of "Familiarity" and then listen to the video of The Beach Boys "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (vocals only). Both bands make use of rich choral sonorities, multiple moving lines, a large overall range from low to high, and feature lead singers (Chris Thile and Brian Wilson) with high vocal ranges.

One last lyrical reference which I had to look up: Verse 2 begins with the line "A smoke machine or a swinging thurible it was hard to see." I had to look up what a "thurible" was and apparently it is a type of incense dispenser used in Catholic and Episcopal churches. Here's a picture of Pope Francis rocking a thurible (or a smoke machine if you're from the Middle Ages).

The religious imagery throughout this song (confusing programmed drums for ringing

(church) bells and confusing a call to prayer for a last call for alcohol, kneeling and bowing our heads, and people lifting up amens during some type of ecstatic experience) cleverly shows where religiosity is found in our largely non-religious culture. It's fascinating that though many people have removed God from their daily experience or vocabulary, there is still a common need among people for communal and even ritualistic experiences. For many, this communal experience no longer happens in a church but in a club or over the internet with our cell phones, rather than a priest or icon, becoming our conduit to the "divine". When viewed from this perspective, one could say our relationship with our technology verges on the idolatress. But that's enough sermonizing...

Here is the lead-sheet transcription of Familiarity: Part II. Stay tuned for the next post on Familiarity: Part III!

#Familiarity #PunchBrothers #ChrisThile #BeachBoys #polyrhythms #religion #chromaticmediant #modulation

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© 2016 by Paul David Thomas