North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers hit pay dirt last year teaming with Steve Martin for the chart-topping Rare Bird Alert. Now the quintet returns sans Martin and stronger than ever. The literate songwriting of ace banjoist Graham Sharp and the formidable mandolinist Charles Humphrey III is a model for younger bluegrassers—no murder ballads or rustic backwoods yarns, but rather vivid explorations of betrayals, deceits, self-doubt, turbulent romances and, all in all, the power of love as a healing force, very au courant as topics. Humphrey III’s mandolin-and-fiddle-driven “Natural Disaster,” dark and doom-laden, equates true love with Mother Nature’s foul moods; the hard-charging, banjo-fired album opener, Sharp’s keening “Nobody Knows You,” wails over a feckless spouse observed to be “always the wind and never a wife,” a notion the awesome fiddler Nicky Sanders underscores with a furious, aggrieved solo. However intense both the music and the appropriately sizzling sonics (the latter clean and clearly delineated while rich in pulsating atmosphere), Woody Platt’s vocals are on another level entirely, deeply soulful and emotionally gripping in the singer’s total immersion in the narratives. Steve who?, you might well ask.