One of the great things about the collaboration between Edie Brickell and Steve Martin is that it just makes sense. Respective to their wide and various accomplishments, both are beloved entertainers who occupy a similar persona, aka, the winsome free spirit (he the banjo-toting funnyman, she the new bohemian). And, as musical partners, each has a way of playing on the idea, drawing out some of that essence in the other (it’s a partnership that extends to the theater, too; the pair’s new musical, Bright Star, begins a Broadway run next year).
Yet on their second album together, Martin and Brickell don’t chart any new musical territory; instead, the soul of So Familiar is easily found right in its name, one that signals a pre acquaintance, like a return visit from a dear, old friend.
The follow up “visit” was most certainly expected, after the title track from Love Has Come for You won a Grammy for Best American Roots Song at the 2014 awards, nudging out bids from Sarah Jarosz (“Build Me Up from Bones”), Steve Earle (“Invisible”), Allen Toussaint (“Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed”), and Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott (“Keep Your Dirty Lights On”). It wasn’t an undeserved win—then as today, both artists remain top tier performers—but one with implications that a second act would soon follow. For fans and likely Martin and Brickell as well, many were curious to see how the pair would recapture some of that album’s charms.
While Love Has Come for You featured an impressive roster of contributors—Esperanza Spalding, Sara and Sean Watkins, the Webb Sisters, Waddy Wachtel, and Martin’s bluegrass pals the Steep Canyon Rangers, to name a few—for this session, the duo, again aided by producer Peter Asher, extended an invite to a few different players, notably banjo pioneer Bela Fleck, who appears with his baritone banjo on the dreamy, Celtic-flecked “Heart of the Dreamer,” The Steep Canyon Rangers, who ride again on raucous bluegrass rounder, “Another Round,” and somewhat remarkably, Incubus’ Mike Einziger, who contributes electric guitar on a number of tracks.
The result is a collection of perfectly pleasant songs that sidle up as easily to Brickell’s coffee shop-ready catalog as they do to Martin’s very good releases with The Steep Canyon Rangers. But don’t file this under bluegrass; it’s more like adult contemporary roots. And it’s under that umbrella, from the predictable hammer-on effect and playful scaling Martin applies to his banjo, to the warmth nestled in Brickell’s every word, that listeners here are treated to handily delivered seconds. They will not go without their admirers, for sure, and as a person who delights in both artists for different reasons, including this shared project, I understand why so many things about it work. Brickell’s lush, drawl-like vocals remain undiminished; nearing 50, she still has that spritely, wonderfully wholesome tone all her own. Martin is a thoroughly charming, utterly capable banjo man. On So Familiar, there is little to dislike.
There is also little left to discover. Perhaps if Martin took some vocal leads, playing up his idiosyncratic singing voice; or if Brickell channeled some of the breezy individualism of a song like “What I Am.” Perhaps if songwriting maestro (and Brickell’s husband) Paul Simon joined in, or Asher applied a weathered patina to the album‘s buff shine, we might see more of each artist’s distinctive flair not already nicely packaged in Love Has Come for You. Reprising it all again makes this an album of good songs tendered by two cherished artists who play very well together, at the same game as before.