[14 February 2014]
If one thought Alynda Lee Segarra planned to settle down based on “Ramblin’ Gal” from Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Look Out Mama, their last album of original music, they’d be wrong. The road still figures largely on Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest, Small Town Heroes, yet its roots are firmly planted in Segarra’s adopted home of New Orleans.
A stray for the better part of the last decade following an upbringing in the Bronx, transient Segarra traveled the United States, hopping boxcars, adapting to each new town, absorbing the full historical spectrum of America’s musical landscape. While evident on 2012’s Look Out Mama with Segarra’s genre hopping between gospel, doo-wop and folk, the album lacked a cohesiveness of purpose. With 2013’s My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, an album of covers and traditionals recorded as an incentive for the crowdsourcing of Look Out Mama, Segarra culled the influences of her heroes, including Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, among others. The result was a reimagined folk narrative whose context often predated the origins of the original songs. Whether roughing up the former’s songs with an edge not before evident or staying true to the latter’s roots, the experience seemingly imparted the power of storytelling with a sense of simplicity upon Segarra, thus informing the songs on Small Town Heroes.
Spanning locales far and wide, Small Town Heroes always longs for the comfort of home. In true folk tradition, Small Town Heroes encompasses politics (“The Body Electric”), sex (“I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)”) and religion (“Crash on the Highway”). From the outset Segarra sets herself up in the role of underdog, a position well suited to one residing in New Orleans’ post-Katrina grit. Even with the comfort of home pervading Small Town Heroes, Segarra still tinkers with styles and forms, this time out melding local blues, jazz and soul flavor with sparse arrangements to best suit her tales of travel, longing and revenge. In these songs, there is no need to call into question the motivations of Segarra’s narrators as they speak directly from the heart.
The bubbly pop of Look Out Mama’s “Lake of Fire” and vocal warble that changed Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry” on My Dearest Darkest Neighbor are gone, replaced by a strong yet subtle voice that is assured and provided the necessary space to breath. The result is efficiency, bringing forth Segarra’s simple, repetitive and pointed words.
The world is not an orderly place and, as such, should be celebrated. Like her adopted home of New Orleans, an amalgamation of disparate cultures and identities, Alynda Lee Segarra and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s music draws upon myths and styles that have come before. “They say good souls they travel far / But did you take with you your old guitar?” sings Segarra on “End of the Line”, chronicling her literal and figurative journey as a musician. Much like the Band, with its lone American – the late Levon Helm – who is memorialized in “Levon’s Dream”, Hurray for the Riff Raff are themselves outliers documenting and defining a musical genre. In a country divided by politics, were it not for this convergence of strays, there would be no splinter groups. What Hurray for the Riff Raff have delivered with Small Town Heroes is a collection of songs that speak from and for the heart of America’s fringe, calling them both to task and arms. Its singer has found a home and sense of being for her voice – a voice capable and deserving of a population larger than the album’s title.