Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers: The Long-Awaited Album
Rounder/Decca – 22 September 2017
Leave it to a comedian from Texas to bring it all back home. From its Appalachian origins to the present day, bluegrass has always enjoyed a loyal counterculture. Now eight years into their collaboration, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers continue to woo the populace into their little paradise where bluegrass is for everyone.
The Long-Awaited Album is a reverent nod to traditions both spoken and unspoken. Steve Martin and crew carry on the rich legacy of bluegrass pioneers like Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and Bill Monroe. With no lack of musicianship, the band could take this genre in any direction they like, yet remain adeptly in tune with the intentions and expectations of the bluegrass style. From furious flatpicking to glistening mandolin licks, The Long-Awaited Album heralds every instrumental archetype that a purist could hope for.
It also presents many of the lyrical themes synonymous with that “high and lonesome” song form. Heartbreak, loneliness, and regret all rear their heads herein. But with Martin at the helm, The Long-Awaited Album is also unmistakably optimistic. Song titles lend themselves to an expectation of whimsy. Names like “Nights in the Lab“ and “Strangest Christmas Yet“ practically demand laughter. Even the instrumental tunes on this album are stamped with curiously droll titles like “Angeline the Barista.”
Perhaps most remarkable about this album is how seamlessly it blends the sad songs and the funny songs, the banal and the thrilling. Every high and low has its moment. This is best exemplified in “Bad Night,” a piece about a heartbroken songwriter who begs “Forgive me while I figure out just what this song’s about.” Self-awareness and willingness to adopt melancholy into his artistic vocabulary makes “Bad Night”’s narrator an amalgam of sadness and hope unto himself.
Martin’s influence is particularly apparent as the album sways from a truly heartbreaking moment into moments more mundane, injecting some romantic comedy into a late-night lab shift between two biologists. “Mix some sulphur iodide, check to see if it’s purified” Martin sings. “I’m going mad working with you in the science lab.” Yes, the tired stereotype of the romantically incapable science geek survives, and on occasion the humor in this album is kooky, but this warrants the affirmation that Martin’s comedic narrative is one that spans the spectrum of popular comedy in attempt to deliver a universally lighthearted message, one too often missing from the airwaves.
As a treat, among these tumultuous tales of love and loss and work and play are five instrumental tracks, which break up the album and offer short, digestible demonstrations of bluegrass savvy for those less acquainted. “So Familiar” is indeed reminiscent of another bluegrass album that made its way into the mainstream, the soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Minor mode banjo strums evoke muddy swamps and foggy air. Then, as soft percussion lifts in, listeners are transported to a rollicking southern dance hall. Each of these instrumental tunes is brief and charming, with a few managing to embody Martin’s characteristic irony without use of any words at all — like the rapid-paced tune “Office Supplies,” which flies by in a blur and then comes to an abrupt stop after precisely two minutes.
The Long-Awaited Album is nothing short of a polished tribute to the bluegrass form. It is a big bowl of bluegrass soup with a list of ingredients a mile long, but they all seem to come together in the end. It is ripe with tales of status quo woe, which in the aftermath leaves hope in its wake. Upheld by the rhythmic and melodic prowess of the Steep Canyon Rangers and the virtuosic flair of Steve Martin, bluegrass could not have hoped for a better pairing. But if it had, Martin would surely have already written a song about it.
— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) October 11, 2017
Keep an eye on Steve Martin’s social media for some soon-to-be-released music video https://www.facebook.com/SteveMartinofficial/