Let me be honest, on initial listening of Best Medicine I couldn’t hear what all the fuss was about, after all The Stray Birds have been declared one of the most exciting new arrivals on the roots Americana scene. I’d heard promise in their previous EP, but the superlatives accompanying this, their second full length album and the first for Yep Roc, seemed misplaced. However, given writers I respected appeared to hear things I couldn’t, I persisted. It took time, but gradually I found myself warming to it more and more.
Comprising Oliver Craven on guitar, resonator and fiddle, Charles Muench on bass and banjo and Maya de Vitry on guitar, fiddle, banjo and piano, with all three sharing the vocals, they came together in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, some four years ago, having grown up on (relatively) neighbouring farms and played together in the school orchestra.
Ploughing traditional American acoustic folk-roots furrows, they don’t go in for fussy arrangements, but their simplicity and the honest expression in de Vitry’s pure voice are the heart of their appeal.
Recorded off the studio floor, the three of them grouped round microphones and playing as they would live and later adding their own extra instrument overdubs, de Vitry says the songs were predominantly drawn from their life on the road, an existence that deftly feeds into the sense of isolation and rootlessness that pervades San Antonio.
A more specific incident informs the opening title number, a resonator accompanied hymn to the power of music inspired by a visit to an old school record store in Schenectady, New York (“if the body is a temple, the soul is a bell and that’s why music is the best medicine I sell”) that makes you want to dig out your old vinyl and caress it affectionately.
It’s one of 10 original numbers here that underline the trio’s folk, bluegrass and mountain music influences, all three apparent on both the fiddle-backed Adelaide and The Bells where Craven’s resonator also adds a touch of the blues. He takes lead on one of the strongest numbers, Feathers and Bone, the first co-write by himself and de Vitry and, detailing a woman who has dedicated her life to breaking the clay, a song that draws deeply on their farmland backgrounds, as does Simple Man, Craven’s self-penned dust bowl tale of agricultural hard times and a farmer who feels he simply cannot go on any longer.
No less potent is de Vitry’s Black Hills, a song in which Muench plays clawhammer banjo and which, recalling the 1890 massacre, was inspired by In the Shadow of Wounded Knee, an article in one of the National Geographic magazines knocking around the studio.
Matters of the heart have their place too with Craven’s banjo-dappled bittersweet three part harmony Stolen Love (‘a stolen love just don’t grow’) and de Vitry’s guitar-piano arrangement Never For Nothing, a song about wisdom gained from the experience of loss.
The album also includes two traditional numbers, Muench taking his first vocal lead on a jaunty swing frisky fiddle driven version of the jazz-blues Pallet (aka Make Me A Pallet On The Floor) and a waltzing Who’s Gonna Shoe with Craven and de Vitry taking turns on the verses.
Backed by clawhammer, the album ends featuring de Vitry on fiddle and lead vocal for the slow, melancholic Might Rain, apparently the first song she ever wrote, which sort of brings things full circle. It took me a while to get there, but the journey was worth it.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now on Yep Roc
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