Despite covering well-tread ground, Hell on Church Street is full of surprises.
A terrific standalone album that’s perhaps done a disservice by its concept, Punch Brothers’ Hell On Church Street is as thoughtful and progressive as the band’s albums ever are. As a tribute to one of their key influences, Tony Rice, the band performed the entirety of Rice’s landmark album, Church Street Blues, at a festival in 2019; banjoist Noam Pikelny then encouraged his bandmates to record their reinterpretation of the album in full. Church Street Blues, then, is an album of covers — purposefully chosen and expertly performed by one of the finest guitarists in the history of Bluegrass music — which means that Punch Brothers tasked themselves with covering a covers album.
Given this setup, it’s to the band’s credit — and is a testament to their technical brilliance, which remains unmatched by any of their contemporaries — that they have the chops to make Hell On Church Street into an album that’s full of surprises. The arrangements on Bob Dylan’s “One More Night” and Bill Monroe’s “The Gold Rush” are not overly beholden to Rice’s, while their version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time” takes a familiar standard in wholly unexpected directions. The variations in tempo and dynamic range on opener “Church Street Blues” immediately make it clear that the band understands that paying tribute to a figure like Rice demands that they take creative liberties with their approach. The band’s fearlessness is part of their brand at this point, and that makes Hell On Church Street a riveting listen. Still, Rice’s Church Street Blues is a genre classic for good reason, and Punch Brothers’ concept here does invite comparisons that, if not necessarily unfavorable, make for the first Punch Brothers album that isn’t a masterstroke of pure creativity and ambition.
Published as part of Album Roundup — January 2022 | Part 2.