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The Stray Birds

Magic Fire – 2016 (Yep Roc)

Reviewed by Fred Smith

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The difference between current successful Americana road veterans like Mandolin Orange and Mipso, on the one hand, and lamented, late bands like Joy Kills Sorrow and The Deadly Gentlemen, on the other, is razor-thin. "Magic Fire" amply supports The Stray Birds' bid to be an act in for the long haul. "Magic Fire" is a sharp-tongued lyrical success with harmonies and clever arrangements in abundance from the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania band, which has spent the last few years on the road, honing their rich Americana sound.

Touring musicians can be forgiven for obsessing about life on the road, but The Stray Birds know that the road is just a place where America happens. Many of the selections (all originals composed by one or more members) tackle the conceit of road life, exposing it as a metaphor for "Living in The U.S.A" It's done confidently and with melodic success.

The lyrics are rich and clever without being cloying. Take Oliver Craven's "Third Day in A Row"("Some things take a lifetime to learn. So you make them up") or " Maya deVitry's "Fossil" ("I'm out here looking for the fossil of the day I met you").

de Vitry's lead vocals are a wonder, and she had a hand on most of the songs. "Magic" fires on all cylinders from beginning to end. The closing selection "When I Die" starts with fulsome a capella harmony, rolling into a country-step beat, which backs up the promise of the cold open. "Sabrina" is a tart portrait of a strong Yuengling-drinking woman ("goin' anywhere she pleases, lookin' like she knows the way") encountered on a triple bill in Baltimore.

In the "Magic Fire" world, "home" is just as abstract as "the road"; it's not just a place, but somewhere you've come from. As de Vitry sings in "Radio," "Everybody's swearin' by a different map."

Up to this point, The Stray Birds have been a trio, featuring deVitry, Craven and Oliver Muench, all contributing vocals and string instrumentation. Here, they added Shane Leonard, a drummer and vocalist who deepens the sound without altering the vibe.

"Magic Fire" was produced by Larry Campbell (who also contributed pedal steel and other stringed turns), and was engineered by Justin Guip a frequent collaborator with Levon Helm. Campbell and Guip, both multiple Grammy winners, in collaboration with the band, have created a work that endures.