STEVE MARTIN The Crow (Rounder)

The first Steve Martin album to be devoted entirely to his banjo-playing side, "The Crow" won the 2010 Best Bluegrass Album Grammy. It's a pleasant, sincere diversion (Martin opens his booklet notes, which betray far more of a continuing gift for comedy than the last few decades of his cinema work, with the admission "I have loved the banjo my whole life") festooned with a Nashville skyline of country music star power, with appearances from Vince Gill, Dolly Parton and Earl Scruggs (and, um, Mary Black). Martin describes it as, probably quite correctly, as "the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe, and that includes possible alternate universes, too" (and yet it sells for just 6.99 on Amazon), but what has all that investment generated?

Of his instrument, Martin writes "It was as though the banjo generated nostalgia for experiences I never had", something that filters through the opener "Daddy Played The Banjo", a poem that became a song, here given voice by Tim O'Brien. "Pitkin County Turnaround", like many of the tracks collected here, displays lightning fingerpicking: is it feasible to shred on a banjo, or does the instrument's inherent levelling democracy render such flashy, egocentric behaviour impossible? Unfortunately, Martin's sole vocal, "Late For School", is charmless slapstick that doesn't ingratiate itself with repeated listens. And there's something tragicomic for enthusiasts of films, comedy or comedy films in the way the artist's track-by-track annotations begin open with observations such as "I was shooting Pink Panther in Boston..." or "I was playing around on the set of Cheaper By The Dozen II...".

"The Crow" is utterly pleasant, impeccably played and produced but  ultimately unmemorable. For all the talent and professionalism on display there's no emotional engagement on display, nothing that plinks the heartstrings, so to speak, the one-dimensional cardboard cutout love story of "Pretty Flowers" being about the outer limit of its reach.

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