Album of the week : Love Has Come For You - Steve Martin & Edie Brickell

Encountering Steve Martin at a party can be an uncertain proposition. Maybe you’ll end up talking to him about developments in art, politics or the weather. Or maybe he’ll ask if you want to add lyrics to some banjo tunes he’s been playing around with, an invitation that leads to your making a record together and solidifies a creative union between the two of you

That may sound like the more unlikely outcome, but it is in fact how Edie Brickell, the singer-songwriter, ended up working with Mr. Martin, the cultural multihyphenate and sometime bluegrass musician, on Love Has Come for You

Everyone should realize by now that Martin is a fine and accomplished banjo player, good enough to play with the likes of Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien and Pete Wernick, and, oh yes, he’s played with Earl Scruggs too, which alone should state the case. Yep, hecan play the banjo, and better yet, he composes on it, and his gentle, lilting, and chiming banjo lines have easy, natural melodies embedded in them. This is where Brickell enters the picture. On Love Has Come for You, her lyrics bring those gracefully easy melodies to life, stretching them into likewise graceful songs with a sparse, whimsical, and artfully open-aired narrative style. Her singing sounds relaxed and unpressured, just like Martin’s easy-rolling banjo lines, and the two of them together are fabulous

This is a true collaboration, and songs like the opener, ‘When You Get to Asheville’, which features a muted chamber string section that wraps around Martin’s banjo like a bright, warm blanket (the album was produced by Peter Asher), and the odd, compelling ‘Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby’ (about a baby thrown off a train in a suitcase, it could almost be called an Appalachian murder ballad, except no one dies, and the song is delivered with a sort of slightly bemused warmth), make it clear that Martin and Brickell are no accidental tourists

Even hoedown-ready pickers such as the sprightly, light-hearted ‘Who You Gonna Take?’ (asking the playful, schoolgirl questions “who you gonna take to the dance …,” the picture show … and the back row of that movie?) never descend into gratuitous banjo heavy speed fests. Much of the material has a darker edge that Martin’s playing enriches. That’s true of ‘Shawnee’ where the singer recounts that if the titular character had attended the family picnic, her creepy cousin with the handlebar mustache would not have sat on her lap and opened a cola. We don’t get many more details about the incident, but the implication is that it didn’t end well

On the title track, one of a handful that concerns children, a baby born out of wedlock that the community tells the singer she should give up for adoption, is bonded to his mother by a lifelong love. The stripped down sound of banjo and whispered percussion tells the simple but moving story without extraneous instrumentation

In contrast, the mother in ‘Yes She Did’ commits suicide by throwing herself into the river leaving a baby and a family asking why. We never learn more about the incident in the 95 second playing time, which is typical of many of Brickell’s lyrics

As producer, Asher understands when to leave well enough alone and when to subtly supplement the recording with other instruments. Bringing in haunting chamber strings, as he does to the mournful ‘Friend Of Mine’, enhances and emphasizes the tune’s earthy tendencies. The innocent “oooh-la-la” female backing to the jaunty ‘Siamese Cat’ along with understated percussion augments the playful song’s early ’60s strains without devolving into cliché or kitsch

If you’re unfamiliar with Brickell’s previous work, you’ll be entranced by her distinctive rounded, innocent yet mature voice. Along with composing compelling lyrics, it’s difficult to imagine a more sympathetic vocalist. She brings sly, unassuming gravitas and the occasional lighter touch to the affiliation. Asher’s deft work provides breathing room between the instruments, Martin’s subtle playing leaves the showboating behind and the trio delivers a modest gem. The final product is informed by bluegrass yet expands the genre’s somewhat narrow boundaries while maintaining and even enhancing a reverence to its rustic roots

Let’s hope this is the beginning of a long standing, three-pronged, musical relationship

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June 21, 2013

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