Blabber’n’Smoke has been privileged to have seen The stray Birds twice this year. First time at Celtic Connections when they were promoting their excellent EP, The Echo Sessions. Next up was a Fallen Angels Club promotion at the CCA in September. In the intervening months, the engaging trio from Pennsylvania were picked up by US label, Yep Roc Records who have released Best Medicine, the band’s second album. This is great news, for the band of course but also for those who faithfully follow the stream of very fine roots musicians, incessantly touring, playing to small (but dedicated) crowds and who buy the CDS, vinyl, T-Shirts and god knows what else at the merch table after the gig. If a label like Yep Roc (home to Dave Alvin, Chuck Prophet, Paul Weller and Robyn Hitchcock) are interested then the future may be just a little bit brighter.
Anyway, down to business. The Stray Birds (Maya de Vitry -guitar, banjo, fiddle, Oliver Craven – guitar, fiddle and Charles Muench – double bass, banjo) have much in common with numerous other string bands doing the circuit, they can all sing with lead vocals shared out while their harmonies are spot on. They swap instruments with abandon, can swing or weep depending on the song and, grouped around a single mic, they can transport the listener to the Appalachians even if you’re sitting at home or hunched up in a folding seat in a dark and hot auditorium. There are two things that perhaps set them apart from the throng. de Vitry’s singing is the number one weapon here as she has a superb voice, fairly unique, no Lucinda Williams’ sultriness or sassy cowgirl grins. She seems steeped in the loam of the land, resonant and rich, a full throated voice that resounds through the ages, she should have been singing with The Band back in the days. In addition to this Craven is no slouch himself in the vocal department while Muench adds a fine earthiness with his contributions. Weapon number two is the songwriting. A song like Adelaide is very much in the tradition but the performance is well above par while Feathers And Bone (with Craven’s slightly hoarse voice leading) is a standard waiting to be picked up by others as it transports the listener to another land. The title song is far removed from traditional fare as the band sing the praises of a record store they visited. A hymn to music (and vinyl in particular) it swells with rippling guitar and an almost Gospel approach to the grooved deity.
There’s not a dud song here as the band recall the Wounded Creek Native American massacre on Black Hills, a song that towers when played live, Simple Man, a Guthrie styled tribute to land workers and Might Rain, the closing song and one which stylistically resembles the opening title song as de Vitry sings again of loss and the band sound as old as the hills with stuttering banjo and plaintive fiddle. Live, the band can whip up a storm but on the album the jollity, if we can call it that , is provided by a rousing Western Swing take on the old standard, Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor and a fine knockabout hillbilly swagger on Who’s Gonna Shoe. Make Yep Roc (and the band) happy and grab a copy, you won’t be disappointed.