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Steve Martin and Edie Brickell: So Familiar
by George Graham
(Concord As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/21/2015)
Duet albums have been the staple of the music business for years, putting together two previously disparate performers in a collaboration. Back when record companies were a factor, the duet album was looked upon as being a way to market to fans of both performers in such collaborations. Many years ago, duet albums were often put together by record company producers, but such joint efforts have often arisen spontaneously on the initiative of the performers. And there have been some interesting combinations over the years, though those partnerships tend to be one-off things.
This week, we have an album by one of those seemingly unlikely combinations of people, who are continuing to work together, making for an interesting and engaging musical partnership. It’s comedian and actor Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Their new collaborative album is called So Familiar.
Those who have followed Steve Martin’s career since the 1970s know that a banjo was often part of his act, usually playing a novelty bit. But Martin has always had an interest in the instrument and it has become a lot more than just a comedic prop for him. Over the past five years, Martin has been getting increasingly serious and directing his attention more to the instrument and writing songs. He recorded his first banjo album in 2009, then struck up an association with the bluegrass band The Steep Canyon Rangers, and recorded a studio album with them in 2011 and began touring with them.
Edie Brickell came to fame as a the lead vocalist in Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians in the later 1980s and which had a number of hits. Ms. Brickell’s appealing vocals and slightly quirky songwriting won them a lot of fans. Ms. Brickell maintained a solo career over the years, and since 1992 has been married to Paul Simon. Ms. Brickell has also been involved with making music for films and appearing on screen as well.
She met Steve Martin and they began collaborating around three years ago, and in 2013 made a joint album called Love Has Come For You. In 2014 Ms. Brickell joined Steve Martin who was performing with the Steep Canyon Rangers and they made a joint live album. The seemingly unlikely combination has proven to be durable, and now they are out with their second collaborative studio album called So Familiar. Like its predecessor, it was produced by Peter Asher, the “Peter” of Peter and Gordon, the 1960s act, and a veteran producer of classic 1970s albums by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, among others. So Familiar is an interesting mix of influences. The album was recorded in three locations where the different parts were added – with Martin and Ms. Brickell recorded in Connecticut, with other parts recorded in Southern California and the Steep Canyon Rangers making a guest appearance from North Carolina. It’s got a little Nashville twang from the steel guitar, and a string section that sounds like Hollywood at times. But overall it’s an enjoyable and intelligent album. There is no comedy here. Martin plays his banjo tastefully, and at sometimes just stays out, while Ms. Brickell remains as likable a vocalist as always. Ms. Brickell wrote all the lyrics to the tunes on which she and Martin collaborated. Martin sometimes plays banjo in the older pre-bluegrass claw-hammer style, and he’s competent and tasteful throughout. The material ranges from music that sounds like old traditional songs to more contemporary rock and country-influenced tunes.
The band on the album is variable, but often includes Leland Sklar, with whom Asher and James Taylor worked back in the early 1970s. The arrangements range from intimate to some songs with a full orchestra. Sometimes it gets a little over the top, but at others the string arrangements are subtle and effective. The songs on the album tend to be rather short. There are 12 songs on the CD, but it times in at under 35 minutes overall.
It opens with the title track, So Familiar, an interesting love song. Martin’s banjo is a prominent part of the sound, giving it an old-time folk texture, but there are pop elements in the arrangements as well. <<>>
The first of the tracks with the orchestra is Always Will another lyrically intelligent love song, which otherwise shows some country influence. <<>>
There are two tracks on which Martin’s banjo does not appear. Ironically, one of them is features a twangy steel guitar. Way Back in the Day is a good piece of writing but the setting is a little schlocky with the cliched string arrangement and that steel guitar. <<>>
There are some rockier-sounding tracks on the record. Won’t Go Back combines the more electric sound with the Martin’s prominent banjo. <<>>
Another departure is a short piece called I’m By Your Side which shows a touch of Gospel influence. It also works well, with good songwriting. <<>>
The orchestra is used a lot more effectively on a pretty little waltz called I Have You, which is a pleasing feel-good kind of love song. <<>>
The Steep Canyon Rangers make their appearance on a bluegrass drinking song called Another Round. It’s a simple song in concept but the gathered players turn it into something quite nice. <<>>
Banjos take the center stage on Heart of the Dreamer which features a guest appearance by Bėla Fleck on a baritone banjo joining Steve Martin. The piece has a kind of Celtic sound with its jig-like rhythm and pennywhistle, though with the full orchestra. It’s the most eclectic track on the album and it comes off quite well. <<>>
So Familiar, the new third collaborative album by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell is a pleasing, generally tasteful project that shows that the seemingly unlikely combination of the comedic actor who does a lot more on the banjo than just dabble, and the Texas-born singer-songwriter who first appeared on the 1980s pop scene, is more than just a passing one-off musical novelty. They wrote the worthwhile songs together, with Ms, Brickell being the lyricist, and the production by Peter Asher though occasionally a bit over the top, is generally tasteful and frequently interesting. It’s an album that is likely to have staying power, unlike many of the other collaborations between unlikely pairs.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” Everything was captured well, and the recording made with different musicians in different cities at different times, comes out as being quite coherent, Ms. Brickell’s vocals are warm and clear, and the instrumental backing is mixed with a nice degree of subtlety. The dynamic range, how the well recording captures the loud and the soft, is also better than average, though not quite at audiophile level.
It used to be that record companies would put out duo albums like this to try to tap into the fan base of the two individual artists. Edie Brickell and Steve Martin obviously came together on their own, and have been making the most of their collaboration, and so I think it is an album that should appeal to fans of both artists.
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