The Steep Canyon Rangers have come a long way since their days as a favorite campus band at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They've been Steve Martin's backup band since 2009, which introduced them to a national, and non-bluegrass, audience and earned them a Grammy nomination for their collaboration with Martin on his Rare Bird Alert album, to which they also contributed three songs. On their Rounder debut, the band continue to challenge their fans with 11 new tunes that show off their growing playing and songwriting skills. They're still a bluegrass band, but most of the songs here have a feel that owes as much to pop, folk, and singer/songwriter impulses as they do to bluegrass. They break out of the usual melodic structures of bluegrass for something that's between newgrass and pop. The set opens with the title track, which sounds like a country/pop hit, albeit played acoustically with Graham Sharp's clattering banjo and Nicky Sanders' wailing fiddle supporting Woody Platt's expressive lead vocal. "Ungrateful One," a tale of childhood hardships, eschews the usual sentimental clichés for a more emotionally honest take on the toll a relationship with a difficult father takes on a young man. A father rages and a son plans his escape with the band leavening the drama with a bouncy, midtempo groove. The vaguely ominous "Between Midnight and the Dawn" could be called a secular gospel tune, with a message of hope that depends on earthly friendships for salvation. A banjo solo that sounds like it came out of the bog book of blues guitar riffs accents the band's bluesy rhythm. The Rangers show off their lighter side with "As I Go," a tongue in cheek celebration of a ne'er do well kissing his girlfriend goodbye; "Natural Disaster" likens love to a meteorological calamity, and "Rescue Me" is another love song with a strong pop melody. The band still has plenty of bluegrass chops too, which they show off on "Knob Creek," the album's one instrumental, but again they avoid the usual tendency to rely on flash over substance. Their measured solos stretch the boundaries again, with Sharp playing muted chiming overtones on his banjo before taking off in a more traditional flurry of notes and the jazz-meets-rockabilly slap bass of Charles R. Humphrey's rhythmic excursion.
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AllMusic Review by j. poet