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The Stray BirdsThe Stray Birds
Album: Magic Fire
Label: Yep Roc
Tracks: 12

Don't expect a direct follow-up, sounds-wise, to the magnificent, Best Medicine from 2014 on this latest album from The Stray Birds. You won't get it and that's because the Birds have purposefully strayed into new musical territories.

But that is no bad thing as the fuller song forms on the refreshingly ambitious Magic Fire are, in the main, worthy of attention and they please further on repeated plays.

Using an invited producer for the first time - Grammy Award-winning, Larry Campbell, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Paul Simon and Willie Nelson, among others - the tracks here are hugely varied, so much so that if you close your eyes you would be hard pushed to recognise the band you thought you knew at times.

Gospel-tinged opener, Shining In The Distance, is meaty and gorgeous, a seamless introduction to the Birds' current musical state of mind. With a drummer (Shane Leonard) and other added musicians on board, Magic Fire has flared up into a self-assured diversion as well as a major departure from what's gone on before in this nest of musicians, namely, roots music for the 21st century.

The transformation, given the Birds' devotion to quality and gutsy charm, is considered, confident and crafted with a sense of adventure. Lyrically, they make you think as well, thanks to the band's determination to adopt a more open, collaborative approach to incisive song writing.

Sunday Morning is traditional country that could have been plucked from Cale Tyson's songbook, with the lines seen by some as a call to action: "You can shout for change and worry about the state of the world / But it's gonna take a little more than praying on a Sunday morning."

Third Day In A Row comes over all Americana. It's pleasingly sunny with warm harmonies while the jaunty Sabrina, the first co-write by the trio of Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charles Muench, is a driving hoedown, all bounce and smiles. Hands Of Man, one of my favourites, is stirring with its dynamic Appalachian fiddle and hallmark, close harmonies perfected from years on the road. It is followed by Somehow, which is just pure, unadulterated, straight-from-the-front-porch-Stetson-wearing-apple-pie country where pedal steel laps against fiddles and, once again, joyous harmonies. When I Die is the closer and, like the opening track, it's gospel based with blissful singing that the Birds deliver jointly, displaying the instinctive passion and grace evident at their superb live shows.

Having boldly extended their band and their repertoire on Magic Fire, just where The Stray Birds fly off to for their next musical excursion is something we will all have to wait and wonder about. Bet it's interesting, though.

Mike Ritchie