Steve Martin / Steep Canyon Rangers

Rare Bird Alert

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From the earliest days of his comedy career, Steve Martin has incorporated the banjo into various aspects of his act, and fellow banjo players have spoken with reverence of his skills for decades. But in recent years he has put a renewed focus on the instrument, and he won a Grammy for his album The Crow in 2010. Rare Bird Alert came along a year later, and it's a full-fledged country/bluegrass album consisting entirely of Martin originals and recorded in collaboration with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Some of the songs are comedic: the hilarious faux-gospel harmony number "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" is an album highlight despite its lack of an interesting melody, and "Women Like to Slow Dance" is both a wry reflection on gender differences and a straight-up bluegrass barnburner. "Jubilation Day" is one of the funnier kiss-off songs ever recorded ("Let's always remember the good times/Like when you were out of town"), and there's even a surprisingly straight version of Martin's breakout novelty hit from the 1970s, "King Tut." But other tracks are sweet and tender, such as the wonderful "You" (written for Martin's wife) and the elegantly lovely "The Great Remember." And there are several songs on which elegance, energy, and boundary-pushing creativity coexist joyfully -- notably the gorgeous "More Bad Weather on the Way" (on which Martin plays very expert clawhammer banjo) and the brilliant instrumental "Northern Island," which features a startlingly complex chord progression for a bluegrass number. Whether your primary interest is in the comedy or the music, this is a solidly enjoyable album.

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