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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Steve Martin And The Steep Canyon Rangers - Rare Bird Alert

Steve Martin And The Steep Canyon Rangers - Rare Bird Alert
2011, Rounder Records

Four time GRAMMY Award winner Steve Martin slaps on his banjo for one more go at that classic bluegrass sound on his latest album with the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert.  With a long and distinguished career as a writer, actor and repeat Saturday Night Live host, Steve Martin doesn't need any new sources of income.  But bluegrass music and the banjo in particular, have long been a passion of Martin's.  Rare Bird Alert features two originals penned by Martin, as well as a bluegrass cover of "King Tut".  Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks turn in cameos on the album as well.

Rare Bird Alert opens with the title track, a bluegrass/Appalachian folk instrumental featuring vibrant picking throughout.  This one's a real toe-tapper; you'll want to get up and dance.  "Yellow-Backed Fly" is a fun little fishing tune.  Violin and banjo make impressive co-conspirators here, trading stanzas with an almost mischievous glee as The Steep Canyon Rangers work in a faux swing feel.  "Best Love" blends bluegrass with an orchestral sound; sort of a Buck Owens meets The Moody Blues vibe.  Be sure to keep an ear out for the backing vocals in this number; the sound they achieve is impressive.

"Northern Island" is an upbeat instrumental with the violin out in front.  Banjo, guitar and violin add their voices in their own times to create a dynamic and musically explosive mix of sounds.  "Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back" is a catchy number that finds Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers  capturing a bit of high lonesome in the backing vocals.  The band also manages to build a pop sensibility into the traditional instrumentation offered here.  "Jubilation Day" explores suddenly being set free from a relationship and seeing it as a gift rather than in sadness.  "More Bad Weather On The Way" is a vibrant, catchy number with a simple, brief refrain as its reference point.  This refrain becomes the axis about which the circular arrangement revolves.

"You" features two female vocalists with wonderful voices engaging in easy-paced harmonies over a pizzicato-style strum.  It's a nice change of pace, adding a vaguely melancholy note into the mix.  "Women Like To Slow Dance" is an enjoyable number that's a bit tongue in cheek.  Martin adds his voice to the mix about half way through, injecting some pointed but subtle humor into the song.  "Hide Behind A Rock" is a solid instrumental that allows the banjos to come out and play, with violin providing balance on the counter-melody.  "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" is a riotously funny live number done accapella.  Lines like "The he is always lower case will keep you laughing out loud.  Rare Bird Alert closes with an entirely competent live version of Martin's "King Tut", done up in bluegrass instrumentation.  Even if you've heard this song so many times it has lost its funny, the fresh take offered here is worth checking out. 

Steve Martin And The Steep Canyon Rangers have done it again.  While the lawyers try to figure out what 'it' is, why don't you saddle up your horse, sidle over to your PDA and transport this album home.  Albums involving famous actors can sometimes be a mixed blessing, but there's nothing mixed about the reaction you'll have to Rare Bird Alert.  It's a highly entertaining turn with a little room to grow.  One of the most entertaining albums thus far in 2011.

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Steve Martin at or Rare Bird Alert is available from as a CD or Download.  The album is also available via iTunes.

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