Steve Martin might be a legend, but the comedian-turned-award winning bluegrass musician is smart enough to play second fiddle — or rather, backup banjo — to Edie Brickell in order to bolster one of Americana's most criminally underrated voices. So Familiar, their second collaborative album, is a more light-hearted affair than their more subdued 2013 debut, Love Has Come for You. And, true to the title of this sophomore LP, the duo's dynamic now seems all the more intuitive.Martin cedes more of the spotlight to Brickell than ever, his strumming always sturdily present but rarely showy.
Steve Martin picked up his banjo again in 2009, recording his first-ever all-instrumental album with his Steep Canyon Rangers, and then he wound up devoting the better part of the next half decade to the instrument he loved since a teenager. Never shy on-stage, he nevertheless wasn't a natural frontperson, so once he ran through two albums with the Rangers, he joined forces with Edie Brickell, an unexpected but natural fit. Bluegrass may not have been in Brickell's vocabulary per se but she's an old versatile folkie comfortable with an array of Americana, something proven out by her new millennial group the Gaddabouts.
Steve Martin’s made a remarkable transition in recent years. Once known as the chaotic goofball who donned a fake arrow through the head, serenaded under the guise of King Tut and uttered the dopey exclamation “Excuuuuuuuuse me,” it always seemed somewhat impossible to assume that he would ever be taken seriously. Never mind the fact that he’s one of America’s most iconic comedians and that his numerous film credits have earned him a solid standing in Hollywood and throughout the rest of the world.
I’m a sucker for the kind of country banjo playing that opens this album. The addition of Hammond, fiddle and nicely understated guitar make So Familiar one of the strongest tracks with Edie Brickell reining in the often drawly mannerisms of her singing style to accompany with great effect. Other songs are not so successful in marrying the feel of bluegrass with the sweep of a big song – Way Back In The Day, for example, loses the distinctive combination in producer Peter Asher’s lush string arrangement, while I’m By Your Side is framed as a piano ballad with a little added banjo.
The cover of the second album from Steve Martin and Edie Brickell looks like the poster for a light, sophisticated rom-com targeted to an older, NPR-ish audience. That's the vibe of the rootsy music they make, too: smart and stately, full of detailed craft and unfussy intimacy. Renaissance man Martin has long since his proven his deep chops as a bluegrass banjo picker (the International Bluegrass Association just gave him a Distinguished Achievement Award, for gosh's sake).