Brooklyn based folk singer Ana Egge has teamed up with Pennsylvania trio, The Stray Birds for this, her eighth album having met them at Folk Alliance in Toronto in 2012. Fans of her last album, the Steve Earle produced Bad Blood, The Bird folk expressed an interest in playing with Egge who subsequently wrote the material for Bright Shadow with them in mind, their instrumentation and voices integral parts of the process. To call the collaboration a success is something of an understatement. With Egge on lead vocals and guitar The Stray Birds (Maya De Vitry : fiddle, banjo, vocals, Charles Muench : upright bass, vocals, and Oliver Craven : mandolin, fiddle, slide guitar, vocals) are ever present with fine harmony singing and their usual degree of musical proficiency with a few of the songs sounding similar to their own recordings in style and delivery. It’s Egge who’s in the spotlight however and she shines brightly. Her voice is a wonderful thing, at times melancholic, wearied, elsewhere skipping in its beat, all the while expressive and warm while her songs are finely honed nuggets of delight.
The album opens with the sturdy upright bass line of Dreamer sounding as if it were backing a beat poem before Egge appears, indeed speaking in rhyme. The chorus however is sung with De Vitry on harmony as more instrumentation appears and a short fiery fiddle solo enlivens the piece. It’s a striking opening but Dreamer is the least indicative of what to expect here, the remainder of the album being more traditional in arrangement and delivery. There’s a brace of sparkling up-tempo numbers that skirt on the edge of bluegrass and stringband music allowing The Stray Birds full rein. Flat Top Guitar tells the tale of a neglected instrument, left gathering dust in a corner and recalling its glory days being played at the country fair and the “golden hands that made me wail and cry.” With a great chorus (again featuring De Vitry), rippling mandolin and curling fiddle it’s a fine song. Jenny Run Away is an adaptation of a traditional song and continues in a similar vein while an excellent rendition of Dolly Parton’s Wildflowers features some fine mandolin playing.
The title song is more introspective, a hushed (and beautifully played) nocturnal musing on dreams of flight with a mesmerising middle eight, it’s hypnotic. On Rock Me (Divine Mother), a number that has gained resonance as Egge’s mother died shortly after the album was recorded, dreams again feature in a song that has a spiritual light at its centre. Egge closes the album with the magnificent The Ballad Of Jean Genet, a tribute to the French author she first heard of from Patti Smith. Here her voice approaches Lucinda Williams’ worn approach while The Stray Birds offer up fine harmony murmurings throughout and swell in the chorus. Laid over sly and sinewy slide guitar it’s a perfect summation of the collaboration between Egge and The Stray Birds and a fine end to an excellent album.
Listen to the song Bright Shadow here