When last we visited a new album from Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, 2011's "Rare Bird Alert," we found a cohesive, focused collection of bluegrass; it was an expansive, artistic creation that only benefited the bluegrass community. A subsequent live album (strikingly entitled "Live") presented a continued refinement of this pairing's chemistry.
Interestingly, Martin's albums with Edie Brickell moved him away from the bluegrass sound he had so fervently embraced while SCR's most recent album "Radio" moved the group, without Martin, further from traditional approaches toward a broader Americana palate.
So, where to with "The Long-Awaited Album?"
Less balanced than "Rare Bird Alert," "The Long-Awaited Album" suffers from weakness on the numbers that are most comedic in approach. While the overwhelming bulk of the album features an appealing selection of modern bluegrass love songs, each with its own Martinized quirks and ably sung by Woody Platt, elsewhere it falls short.
The album starts strong with "Sante Fe," "Caroline" (sung by Martin), "All Night Long" and "Canadian Girl" exploring differing scenarios of love absent, lost and found. Vocally and instrumentally, these numbers as well as "Angelina the Barista" and "Girl From River Run" hold up to repeated listening. There is no faulting the way Martin and SCR present these songs, whether ripping through "Office Supplies," meandering pleasantly within "Always Will," or rambling without hurry on a more restrained pieces such as "So Familiar" and "Bad Night." Especially appealing is the way the two banjo players-Martin and Graham Sharp-work together to create a melodic harmony that can be achieved only rarely.
Martin's trademark choppy approach to singing is unique within the music, not without charm, but definitely not for everyone; his voice is as individual as Martin himself is. Lyrically, Martin includes idiosyncratic minutiae most writers avoid in pursuit of poetic universality. References to the Olive Garden, Gate 14, the Tar Heels, and purified sulphur iodine are clearly specific to the romantic universe Martin creates. They do, however, create some discomfort upon the ear.
Unsuccessfully, the seasonal "Strangest Christmas Yet" tries too hard to reach "Merry Christmas From the Family" levels of irreverence, resulting in a stilted performance. "Nights in the Lab" is similarly uncomfortable, neither charming nor awkwardly gratifying.
Filled with terrific bluegrass picking (including five distinctive instrumentals) and plenty of Woody Platt leads, "The Long-Awaited Album" is a welcome if uneven bluegrass return for Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers.