Saturday, March 30, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1244: Hurray for the Riff Raff

Welcome to the weekend, world! This next review is one of my best finds this year, although it took two people to get me there.

Disc 1244 is… Small Town Heroes
Artist: Hurray for the Riff Raff

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? Singer, writer and producer Alynda Lee Segarra takes a seat on an invisible chair located in the middle of Main Street, Small Town, USA circa 1950.

Ordinarily I’d be concerned for a young woman’s safety sitting in the middle of a street like that, but Segarra can take care of herself. She has also summoned some kind of protective circle festooned with the signs of the zodiac. Also circling her in a protective aura: a Puerto Rican flag, a yellow rose, a sun, a coin a hand and a bottle of tequila.

Most interesting is the symbol in the upper right – a circle with two arrows. This is hobo code for “hobos not welcome – get out fast.” Apparently Segarra used to ride the trains in hobo style, so this symbol would have come in pretty handy during that time of her life.

How I Came to Know It: I had thought I discovered Hurray for the Riff Raff through an episode of “What’s In My Bag?” starring Ethan Hawke. Hawke goes on about the band enthusiastically for some time (you can watch the Youtube clip here. The relevant section is 4:44 in but Ethan Hawke is so lovable and has such great musical taste that whole episode is worth your time.

However, as I was telling this story to my friend Randall, he reminded me that it was he who had brought a song to a music listening night from the band so Randall actually discovered them for me, then Ethan Hawke reminded me about them a month later. So it was Randall, and then Ethan. Maybe the three of us could all go get a beer and talk about music some time. Ethan – let me know when you’re available.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Hurray for the Riff Raff albums and of the two, I have to put “Small Town Heroes” at #1.

Ratings:  5 stars

“Small Town Heroes” grew on me and grew on me fast. It only came into my collection a couple weeks ago but I spent most of the work week delaying writing this review, lingering on its multifaceted beauty.

The creative force behind Hurray for the Riff Raff is Alynda Lee Segarra, a New York born, New Orleans-based singer-songwriter who writes songs that remind you of a mix of Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. Those are a lot of big shoes to fill but Segarra’s got the talent to manage it. She writes songs that will one day be classics in multiple genres, if there is any justice in the world.

It starts with Segarra’s vocals which have a country crooner purity, with a seasoning of bluesy grit that gives them emotional resonance. She is able to turn the grit on and off at will, giving the record considerable artistic range. “Blue Ridge Mountain” is old-time bluegrass, “The New SF Bay Blues” is first generation blues stripped down to just guitar and voice and “The Body Electric” is modern Americana, enhanced with violin and horn. The record is a love letter to everything that has come before. It could easily feel contrived, but the songs are so original and are performed with such gravitas that it just feels timeless.

The record features exceptional musicianship as well. The guitar work on every track is so great I had to check the liner notes to see who it was. As often as not, it is Segarra playing. She has a relaxed and easy hand that had me thinking of her previous life as a hobo, riding in a box car or strolling through corn fields. Fellow Riff Raffers and guitarists Sam Doores and A.P. Baer also deserve mention for their excellence.

Lyrically every song drew me in, whether she is lamenting gun violence (“The Body Electric”) or just pining for a lover (“The New SF Bay Blues”) she draws you in on a personal level, her words reaching through the speaker and putting their hand on your arm to get your full attention. On the title track Segarra tells the tragic story of a drug addict abandoned but not forgotten:

“Oh baby girl, where did you go
I threw you out where the cold wind blows
Are you in Vidalia with your no good mom
I just couldn’t watch you stick it in your arm.”

Segarra has a talent for wrapping tough and tender into a single concept, with lines like “a woman’s heart it’s made of solid rock” and “I tempted fate, and I acted smart/I grew some callous on my heart.” She brings her characters to life. Sometimes she makes you feel sorry for them, but even when down they never lack agency, even though it is sometimes employed against their own interests.

Usually I am excited to see what the Odyssey brings me next, but this time is different. As I wrote this I am listening to “Small Town Heroes” for a fifth time in a row all I want is have a sixth listen, and then a seventh. But the call of the CD sea is strong, and so I must reluctantly part from Hurray for the Riff Raff; I have a feeling I will be visiting with them often down the road.

Best tracks: They are all good

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