Artist: The Stray Birds
Album: Magic Fire
Label: Yep Roc
Release Date: 08/19/2016
You may have heard the stunning opening track, “Shining in the Distance” via NPR or other radio outlets. The song has such catchy hooks and glorious harmonies that it’s almost impossible for the album to be this strong through its dozen songs. It’s not, but it sure comes pretty damn close. Part of that is due to Grammy winning producer Larry Campbell’s touch, an expanded band, and mostly because of greater chemistry and collaboration among the original group members.
The album was recorded near Woodstock, NY, after spending some time in their original home base. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Maya De Vitry says, “We started out as a trio of people who all grew up in Lancaster County (PA) and had known each other for a very long time. But it was a slow and deliberate musical courtship, and it took years and a lot patience for us to actually come together and get into a car and start touring and recording as a trio.” The other lead vocalist Oliver Craven adds, “This record is unlike any of our previous releases in that it has songs written by the two or three or four of us together.” The band now consists of five members, adding drummer Shane Leonard and organist Jake Sherman to original members de Vitry, Craven, and bassist Charles Muench. Campbell rounds out the sound on various tracks with his additional fiddle, guitar, or pedal steel.
The Stray Birds tend to show up on bluegrass and folk charts but this recording may change that. Bluegrass elements are certainly at the foundation but the band also has a rich Americana sound, replete with resounding three-part harmonies throughout. You do get that fiddle driven bluegrass sound in “Sabrina.” “Hands of Man” also has a dark Appalachian feel. “Third Day in a Row” is more roots –oriented, tracing to a solo Tom Petty or Traveling Wilburys kind of sound. “Where You Come From” is Muench’s first songwriting contribution to an album. A couple of subtle political songs are in the mix too. “All the News” speaks to how lucky we are to live in relative comfort and safety while “Sunday Morning” is a call to action. The closer, “When I Die” has such lyrics as “rich man’s war.” Craven says, “I don’t think that this record is overtly politicized but there is an agreed perspective within the band, and I think that turns up throughout the album. It’s not only our opportunity but our obligation to do what we can to help the people around us as best we can.”
These messages are natural expressions. They are not preachy and do not interfere with the upbeat, uplifting tone to the album. The Stray Birds are no longer lost or grappling for a sound. They have found their “magic fire.” With a few listens, you’ll be singing along with them.
– Jim Hynes