The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo (40 Productions)
The scenario sounds laughable: comedian Steve Martin, a banjo and 15 original bluegrass songs. Is he kidding? Actually, no. Most of The Crow plays with as straight a face as Joaquin Phoenix had when he fumbled through some lousy, substance-infused rap performances in Vegas.
Unlike Phoenix, Martin the actor-turned-musician is not half bad. In fact, his album is more than half good. Hard to believe, isn't it? Evidently, Martin's banjo-pickin' and songwritin' skills - which, according to a Billboard.com interview, he's cultivated since age 17 - are decent enough to garner contributions from reputable folk and country artists.
Among the record's credits are Earl Scruggs, Grammy-winning musician Tim O'Brien, Irish singer Mary Black, and banjo virtuosos Tony Trischka and Pete Wernick. On "Pretty Flowers", Vince Gill and Dolly Parton sing a waltzing duet.
The standout tracks are instrumental, with a few moments registering as downright impressive. The sheer speed of "Pitkin County Turnaround" should convince any skeptic of Martin's playing ability. The B-movie-theme licks of "Hoedown at Alice's" reveal the innate musicality of the former "wild and crazy guy" as well as his ear for crafting authentic-sounding bluegrass tunes.
The best tracks maintain a traditional, non-ironic feel - which is remarkable, considering that Martin's biggest hit single to date is the absurd 1978 SNL spinoff "King Tut." As a lyricist, Martin is not extraordinary. His more serious lyrics are simplistic and unexciting; the comedic "Late for School" is typical of Martin's flare for making the mundane ridiculous.
Despite its lyrical shortcomings, The Crow almost lives up to the cover art, which boasts, "truly wonderful and just as advertised."
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