The Stray Birds

Best Medicine

Yep Roc Records

From the moment the disc started rolling and I heard the first guitar notes merging with Maya de Vitry’s voice, recounting the tale of a record shop hanging on in the midst of a dying street, I was hooked.

While The Stray Birds fit into the folk tradition, most of the songs don’t seem to cut into deep political ideas like those of former generations’ folk singers.

If the body is a temple
The soul is a bell
And that’s why music is
The best medicine I sell

How true. Music, even with sadness hovering over the notes, almost always gives me a lift. I think we need music like we crave love and sustenance. I am encouraged by the growing field of science that suggests music will stay in our minds longer than almost any other memory. Best Medicine is another disc that I suggest you add to your storehouse of tunes.

Oliver Craven and Charlie Muench along with de Vitry are the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based trio, The Stray Birds. Best Medicine was mostly recorded around a single microphone which allowed them to capture the intimate feel of their performances. There were a few overdubs to add instruments, but this method meant they didn’t use studio musicians or guests to supplement what they were able to do themselves. I wasn’t surprised when I discovered this was their method since the album had reminded me of the Cowboy Junkies early release, Trinity Sessions (1989), which was recorded on one microphone.

The second cut pulls us into the trauma of an abandoned child who dreams of what could have been. Love does come, but not without tears.

Why your mama rolled that way
Well it ain’t your stain
You were born for the leaving
Hold your claim
She called you Adelaide

Most of the tunes are written individually by either de Vitry or Craven. “Feathers & Bone,” however, is a collaborative effort and after repeated listens has become one of my favorites. At first glance (I know, I was listening, but I also check the lyrics out) it appears to be about an angel, since how else could you bring feather and bone together? Eventually I began to identify with the protagonist. No, I’m not suggesting I am an angel, but if we begin to see the mixture that is life, the fragile undergirding the possibility of what we can become, it makes sense. I don’t claim to know what they were imagining when then they put these lines together. Give a listen and see what you hear. I am choosing to understand it as the struggle we walk every day between the kingdom being present and living with the fragile bones that make up our lives.

When the working day is done
And the walls of the kingdom haven’t come
Lays her body in the sun
Imagines what she could have done

While The Stray Birds fit into the folk tradition, most of the songs don’t seem to cut into deep political ideas like those of former generations’ folk singers. But my favorite cut, “The Bells,” could easily be coming from the lips of Pete Seeger. You have to listen carefully to get all of the inferences that are submerged in the lyrics waiting for us to have the courage to act.

Muddy waters
Keep on rolling
And the bells are cracked
But they keep tolling

“Simple Man” could easily be a Dust Bowl-era Woody Guthrie tune with the desperation of the farmer who can’t even feed his own family.

Got no food on the table
No wood in my fire
And I pray some nights that I don’t wake up tomorrow

“Simple Man” offers an antidote reminding us of the struggle that many still face as they simply try to survive, as they question if it is even worth surviving and as they muse that their hard work is having no effect. Compare this to our cultural idea that work should be fulfilling, should match our passion and give us the resources and time to do all of the recreational things we desire. Many of our fellow inhabitants of this globe are just trying to survive. I hope I remember this the next time I grind fresh beans for my coffee treat and am tempted to complain about those parts of my job that are just plain challenging. Turn on the music and get on with it.

The Stray Birds are well worth a listen. Best Medicine offers a full dosage of excellent instrumental playing, tight harmonies, and slow-release lyrics that unfold their meaning over time.