Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, "The Long-Awaited Album" (Rounder Records)
There's a lot of excellent music on Steve Martin's new bluegrass album with the Steep Canyon Rangers, which is good news considering five of the collection's 14 tracks are instrumentals.
Sometimes, though, to quote Gloria Estefan, words get in the way.
Take "Caroline," the first single from "The Long-Awaited Album." It has a cracking, virile refrain calling out for the object of the protagonist's affection, who has left him "in the middle of a third-floor parking structure," but the verses are clunky and break down long before the end.
Several degrees closer to comedy, "Strangest Christmas Yet" lengthily describes a family gathering/traumatic experience and, perhaps understandably, reaches a "can't wait 'til next year" conclusion despite all the mishaps and embarrassments.
Lyrically sharper are "Girl From River Run," a sweet and fairly straightforward tale of romance with a happy end, and "On the Water," about a boat trip and the importance of spending time with friends. "This type of song is rare in bluegrass, as there's not much sailing in Kentucky," Martin says.
Opener "Santa Fe" winningly combines bluegrass with Mariachi horns and Martin's lyrics reach an accomplished balance between humorous and touching.
Of the instrumentals, shining brightest are the oddly-named "Office Supplies" and "So Familiar," the latter written with Edie Brickell, Martin's other recent musical partner.
The Steep Canyon Rangers prove their worth throughout on their second studio album with Martin. The band formed in 2000 by students at the University of North Carolina more than hold their own and Woody Platts' lead vocals carry the best songs.
You could say "The Long-Awaited Album" reflects Martin's tally of Grammy Awards — three for music and two in the late 1970s for comedy records — and that feels just right.