Listening to “Rare Bird Alert” is kind of like having dinner with a favorite uncle whom you haven’t seen for ages. You laugh, joke, perhaps debate and argue a little, perhaps reminisce about those who are no longer around. You leave with a lighter step, thinking, “Man, I forgot how much fun that could be!” At the same time, some of the truths your uncle laid upon you–not in a heavy handed manner but just by way of sharing his experiences–resonate with you for some time after. You always enjoyed your uncle but as an adult, you appreciate his wisdom more than when you were younger.
Every actor has made an album, or at least so it seems. Martin however has been somewhat out of the limelight for the last few years, making his musical career seem like less of a gimmick. More importantly he actually has the talent to pull it off. The songs are innovative but also infused with tradition, stepping out of the box without being overly obvious about it. A good example is on the opening track (also the title track), an instrumental in which Martin uses silence in a way that is uncommon in bluegrass but works well with the tune (addition by subtraction, if you will.) Another strong instrumental is “The Great Remember” in which Martin’s banjo is melodic, almost lyrical. While Bela Fleck has been known for banjo virtuosity in almost every style of music known to man, Martin manages to make it sound prettier than one could imagine.
Most of the tracks are vocal however and we are treated to quite the variety of singers. Leading off is none other than Sir Paul, although “Best Love” is a somewhat pedestrian vehicle for him. The close harmonies of the Dixie Chicks bring the heart song “You” to life. Martin’s own Steep Canyon Rangers turn in impressive vocal performances as well. The most technically demanding–and arguably most humorous–song on the record is “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”, an a capella number with several smoothly executed modulations. The Rangers’ humor and skill are also evident on “Women Like to Slow Dance” and “Jubilation Day.” The record also features a live version of Martin’s classic hit “King Tut”, this time in a fully bluegrass rendition.
There is no dead weight on the record, although a few are relatively weak. “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” and “Yellow Backed Fly” are both entertaining and cute but not particularly memorable. Nevertheless, it’s that all-too-uncommon record (a true “rare bird” if you will) that is enjoyable to listen to in its entirety; even the songs that don’t stand out work well enough to not skip. Not every story that your uncle spins is a masterpiece; occasionally Aunt Mildred’s roast might be a little dry. Their hospitality, however, is hard to beat and few people who spend an evening there regret it. There are far worse ways to spend 40 minutes or so than with this collection of songs from Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.