Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers Rare Bird Alert Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

However hard and commendably he tries, Martin is a comedy performer at heart.

Andrew Mueller 2011

Steve Martin is not the only Hollywood star to have attempted a serious country album in recent years – this furrow has also been ploughed by Billy Bob Thornton (actually not bad) and Tim Robbins (heart-stoppingly dreadful). Martin, to judge by his expansive and somewhat overly self-deprecating sleeve-notes of Rare Bird Alert, is both nervous about presenting his credentials in this arena, and grimly aware that the record has next to no chance of being judged on its own merits.

He’s about half right. Martin is a superb banjo player, who holds his own even in the rarefied company of the mighty Steep Canyon Rangers, an acclaimed bluegrass troupe from North Carolina (the instrumental cuts occasionally evoke thoughts of The Dillards, about as high as praise gets in this context). However, even allowing for the difficulty of pretending that you’re not listening to one of the cast of Three Amigos, Rare Bird Alert never quite manages to sound unlike a rich man’s hobby.

Martin is just too instinctively amiable to muster the passionate furies that animate the best of his genre, and too quick to deflate whatever momentum he does gather with a joke: Jubilation Day is an excellent idea for a song – a whooping recognition that not all breakups are unwelcome – but is overloaded with punch lines. Too many other songs are overburdened with twee whimsy: one would not live long on the difference between Yellow-Backed Fly and anything off the soundtrack of folk satire A Mighty Wind.

Martin avails himself of his contacts, getting Paul McCartney to croon the nondescript trundle Best Love and the Dixie Chicks to sing the pretty ballad You. The clear highlights, however, are the live tracks included towards the end, including the Tom Lehrer-ish anti-gospel holler Atheists Don’t Have No Songs. This premise is slightly flawed – there’s XTC’s Dear God and Robbie Fulks’ God Isn’t Real to name two – but the song clearly prompted laughs in the right places on the night. Martin, however hard and commendably he tries to prove otherwise, remains a comedy performer at heart.

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