For the Record: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, ‘Rare Bird Alert’

Some months back Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers were out making the rounds to promote their team-up album, “Rare Bird Alert.” I enjoyed the performances, and I’ve always been fond of bluegrass, so I emailed the library, put the record on reserve and waited my turn.

It finally came and I can’t stop listening to it. Is it too early to declare the Best Album of 2011? Too bad, because I just did. If you love bluegrass, and the wit of Steve Martin, “Rare Bird Alert” is the record for you. If you don’t love bluegrass — well, my sympathies.

I’ve long been a fan of Steve Martin (tho’ not all of his films) and especially admire his ability to combine comedy with the banjo. Who wasn’t impressed by his chops when he’d break into “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” during his Wild and Crazy standup days? Who doesn’t love the banjo? Probably the same pathetic souls who don’t appreciate bluegrass.

Now he’s put his musical skills center stage (in addition to vocals and banjo, Martin wrote most of the songs), in collaboration with the talented Steep Canyon Rangers. There’s plenty of the humor you’d expect in Martin’s lyrics, but he also shows he knows how to compose a stirring instrumental.

Like most bluegrass albums, “Rare Bird Alert” is a mix of instrumentals and songs with vocals.  Let’s just go down the track list:

1. Rare Bird Alert. An excellent instrumental that really kicks the album off in high gear. Notable for its odd breaks, it’s the best instrumental on the record.

2. Yellow-Backed Fly. Humorous tune about the eternal struggle between fisherman and fish.

3. Best Love. Paul McCartney sings lead on this lovely tribute to the common and mundane aspects of life and loving someone. Probably the best thing McCartney has recorded in years.

4. Northern Ireland. Another jaunty instrumental.

5. Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back. Another funny ditty about a guy who just can’t decide if he wants to break it off with his girl.

6. Jubilation Day. Martin takes lead on this hilarious tune about a guy who has definitely decided to break it off with his girl. Perfect bluegrass tune, the highlight of the album.

7. More Bad Weather On The Way. Mostly instrumental, this song begins a 3-tune break from the comedy and break-neck pace of the earlier songs. It’s still pretty up-tempo.

8. You. The Dixie Chicks provide some lovely harmonies to this melancholy tune of lost love.

9. The Great Remember (For Nancy). The banjo can also make a sad sound, and a uplifiting one, as demonstrated in this instrumental.

10. Women Like To Slow Dance. Time to pick up the pace. The band advises men on the secrets of romance through dance in a song that, naturally, runs at the fastest speed of any tune on the album.

11. Hide Behind A Rock. Another jaunty instrumental.

12. Atheists Don’t Have No Songs. Gospel-tinged lament for those godless sinners watching football in their underpants. Hilarious.

13. King Tut. Bluegrass remake of Martin’s ’70s hit. If I had to pull one song from this disc, it would be this one. The song’s still funny but it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album. Probably why they put it on the end.

To sum up: I cannot more highly recommend “Rare Bird Alert.”

Note: If you download this album off iTunes, spend the extra 99 cents and also download the single Me and Paul Revere — a fun, clever tune about Paul Revere and his ride. Historical accuracy not verified.

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