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Steve Martin & Edie Brickell
Love Has Come For You
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Steve Martin has earned our trust.
Despite his long apparent affection for the banjo and his oft-professed regard for the traditional and bluegrass masters of the 5-string, when it was announced several years ago that he was turning toward the roots music world with a guest-laden, banjo-based album, there were no shortage of sceptics sniping from the weeds.
I hope I wasn’t one of them, but I may have been.
The Crow was an appealing, and largely satisfying, collection of tunes, principally original although many had appeared three decades earlier on a previous Martin collection. Rounder Records released it, and the album received near-unanimous positive regard as well as a Grammy Award. Along the way, Martin hooked up with the Steep Canyon Rangers and, to his credit, has continually advanced their contributions to his music.
The even more impressive and expansive Rare Bird Alert followed in 2011, by which time Martin had established a high-profile (and generous) banjo bursary, and he has continued to bring his brand of bluegrass-based, banjo music to soft-seaters and late night television studios across the continent. He and the Rangers even won an International Bluegrass Music Association award as Entertainer of the Year.
When word came that Martin’s next project was to be a collaboration with eclectic pop vocalist Edie Brickell, eyebrows were once again raised. However, if we’ve learned nothing else since 2009, we should have learned to trust Steve Martin’s vision.
Love Has Come For You works on every level.
Straight up, this third set for Rounder is not a bluegrass album. The Steep Canyon Rangers do appear—individually and collectively—on the majority of the album, but so do the likes of Waddy Wachtel and producer Peter Asher—names familiar to anyone who has three or more Asylum albums in their collection—as well as Matt Rollings, Stephen Hilton, and the Watkins siblings. Americana, roots, and acoustiblue, whatever they mean, are better descriptors of this curious but extraordinary sounding album.
Love Has Come For You has an organic feel about it; each song has natural, living qualities infused within its structure. That the songs were composed long distance, via electronic communication—Martin establishing banjo melodies upon which Brickell built lyrics and vocal melody—is fairly remarkable. The songs are sparsely embellished with a variety of instruments, primarily but not exclusively acoustic.
Brickell, best known from Edie Brickell & New Bohemians (“What I Am”) and as Paul Simon’s spouse, has a breezy voice and relaxed manner well-suited to accompany Martin’s banjo leads. She has chosen to sing of familiar and even ‘down-home’ topics: family picnics, community gossip, interpersonal relationships, Siamese cats vs spoiled daughters- and her approach is equally comfortable. There is nothing overtly polished or embellished in her singing; it very much feels as if Martin is picking on a farmhouse veranda while Brickell gives voice to the objects and situations surrounding them, all the while relaxing against the wooden banister.
The lead track, “When You Get To Asheville,” exudes smoldering longing with acceptance, and has a banjo-melody that positively kicks. “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby” is likely the closest the album comes to bluegrass, both musically and lyrically. Over a subdued but sparking instrumental base, Brickell sketches the story of a found infant and the couple who raise her.
The album doesn’t drag, coming in at a compact 36 minutes with few numbers exceeding three minutes. Much like Brickell’s writing style—poetic, fragmented, and spare—the songs clip along, visiting friends, neighbors, and strangers glimpsed along a riverside. In this regard, Brickell reminds one of Minton Sparks.
Bluegrass friendly and banjocentric with the additional, startling appeal of Brickell’s vocal and lyrical gifts, Love Has Come For You has justifiably won widespread acclaim for Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Add me to the list of those praising the qualities of this unusual collaboration.