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The Stray Birds - Magic Fire (YepROC Records)

Star rating: 
5

One of the memorable moments of the 2015 Cambridge Folk Festival was when all three members of Lancaster County trio, the Stray Birds huddled around one single microphone on the main stage; to the right, Charlie Muench leaning against his upright bass, in the centre, guitar picker and occasional fiddle player Oliver Craven, face almost completely obscured by the circular frame of the diaphragm condenser microphone and finally to the left, singer and fiddle player Maya De Vitry, whose determined voice is of the sort you imagine would come out of the mouth of Gillian Welch's wayward kid sister. The songs on MAGIC FIRE, the band's third album to date, are bookended by two outstanding tracks in Shining in the Distance, which opens the album, raising the bar from the start, along with the powerful closer When I Die, complete with its tour de force three-part harmony intro. In between there are surprises for those familiar with the Stray Birds' back catalogue. At times on MAGIC FIRE, the trio reflect mainstream Country of the stadium variety, such as Third Day in a Row, a Nashville jukebox cut if ever there was one, albeit with a definite sense that the music is very much at the forefront, leaving behind the spotless white suits and matching Stetsons, along with the meticulously trimmed goatees and substantial bouffant wigs. The Stray Birds are about the soulful heart of Americana and Saturday night dancing, they're about Mississippi Pearls and Sabrina pulling grapes from the vine. They're the Stray Birds and they're here. With excellent production courtesy of Larry Campbell, whose work with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Levon Helm doesn't go unnoticed, MAGIC FIRE is probably one of the finest albums of the year.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky