Noam Pikelny Credit: Justin Camerer

As a member of virtuosic progressive bluegrass outfit the Punch Brothers, banjo whiz Noam Pikelny long ago established his technical chops, fitting superbly into the band’s ambitious arrangements and elaborate compositional gambits. He’s used his solo recordings to chronicle an interest in more traditional modes, whether essaying the music of Bill Monroe or veering into 70s-style newgrass turf. The brand-new Universal Favorite (Rounder) casts his playing in another new light, because unlike his previous solo records there’s no one complementing his fleet picking—though he does often step up as a low-key vocalist. Pikelny has catholic taste, so it’s no surprise that the album—beautifully and sparsely produced by fellow Punch Brother Gabe Witcher—toggles between classic material, originals, and songs of recent vintage, such as Josh Ritter’s “Folk Bloodbath,” a kind of murder-ballad mashup where bodies pile up with each passing verse. The heart of the album, though, is its original tunes, on which Pikelny’s delicate fingerwork generates gorgeous webs of sound that are sometimes brittle, sometimes glowing. The album credits list the five different instruments he plays—including guitar on a couple of tunes and a resophonic National four-string banjo on which three metal cones function as the soundboard. Without the warmth and facility of his playing that might all sound like geek talk, but the performances feel more fragile, heartfelt, and honest than anything he’s previously done on his own.   v