Although The Stray Birds backed Anna Egge on her 2015 album, Bright Shadow (review here), Magic Fire is their first album under their name since 2014’s Best Medicine. It also marks many ‘firsts’ for the band – the first time they’ve used an outside producer (Grammy award-winner Larry Campbell who’s given a rockier edge to the sound); their first fully collaborative songwriting effort and, with Charles Muench, Oliver Craven, and Maya de Vitry joined by percussionist Shane Leonard for the recording, their first as a four-piece.
If its mostly acoustic predecessor was their break-out album, this more electric, full-band follow-up both consolidates and extends their status in the upper echelons of Americana, underscoring their ability to craft memorable melodies twinned with sharp lyrics.
Driven by a strummed acoustic riff that’s gradually joined by organ and fiddle, the close harmony, gospel-influenced Shining In The Distance with its uplifting verses providing an excellent introduction to the album’s dozen tracks. Sung by Craven, the infectious Third Day In A Row brings a Tom Petty shuffle to an optimistic song that seems to be about rehabilitation and positivity (“it’s the third day in a row you’ve seen the sun come up”). That upbeat mood spills over into the trio-penned fiddle rousing hoedown that is Sabrina, understandably a crowd-stomping favourite from their live set.
Although the tempo’s slower, the attitude’s the same for Radio (“life is a radio, go on change the station”), a California heat-haze number with an almost Latin feel to the rhythm. Leonard’s presence is again felt as he provides the scuffed beats anchoring Where You Come From, a playful contribution by Muench that invests simple questions with existential profundity, not to mention a very catchy chorus.
Pedal-steel and fiddle providing the track’s backbone, de Vitry returns on vocals for Fossil, a smart lyrical spin on a dried up relationship, which, in turn, gives way to the verse-trading traditional-styled folk gospel fiddle-driven Hands Of Man.
What follows is a sudden pedal-steel enrobed swerve into classic Everly’s waltz territory for Somehow, a song that sounds like a lost gem from the Boudleaux-Bryant Songbook, from where it’s only a short step to the honky tonk floor with the good-times Sunday Morning. It doesn’t have the same substance as some of the other songs, but its sunny, feel-good nature in undeniable.
Another pedal steel washed track, the slow waltzing Mississippi Pearl, has de Vitry in a yearning mode as she sings “shining like a Mississippi pearl, hanging on the edge of the world”. It’s back to jauntiness with the clip-clopping percussion, bubbling organ fills and 60s funky groove of All The News.
Finally, they return to the gospel notes on which they began, following a similar structure with the 70s flavoured When I Die, three-part acapella intro giving way to a fuller sound, including dobro solo, each member, Leonard included, contributing a verse. Flaming brilliant.
Released August 19th via YepRoc Records
Order The Magic Fire via Amazon
The Stray Birds return to the UK shores in October for a string of dates in support of the new album, including a show at London’s Bush Hall. Full details via their website here: www.thestraybirds.com/shows