Release Date: Feb 11, 2014
Record label: ATO
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
Everyone loves a good murder ballad – even some feminists, for whom the cognitive dissonance is particularly brutal. In traditional song, women are forever being lured to grisly ends, "and the whole world sings, like there's nothing going wrong", notes Alynda Lee Segarra, who, together with her fiddle player Yosi Perlstein and a cast of New Orleans musicians, go by the name Hurray for the Riff Raff. Their faultless fifth album pays homage to a variety of roots forms.
Much has been made of the fact that Hurray for the Riff Raff leader Alynda Lee Segarra calls New Orleans home, but where she makes music is rather less interesting than when on her new album, Small Town Heroes. Though the Bronx native sings here and there about her adopted hometown, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s songs rarely feel rooted there. Rather, these 12 tracks encompass a broad swath of a timeless America, like old Carter Family tunes existing in the peaks and troughs of AM radio waves rolling endlessly over the miles.
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.
Of the many things distinguishing Hurray for the Riff Raff vocalist Alynda Lee Segarra from the hoard of suspenders-donning and banjo-strumming leads of contemporary folk music, her backstory is the most obvious. She’s a Bronx-raised Puerto Rican who left home at 17 to hop trains and roam the country, and she eventually stopped in post-Katrina New Orleans. There, she immersed herself in the city’s rich busking tradition, playing dusted-off folk songs with a deep reverence for Depression-era folk standards and golden country, eventually morphing into the Americana project Hurray for the Riff Raff.
“Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score,” Alynda Lee Segarra sings on “The Body Electric,” the centerpiece of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new album, Small Town Heroes. Over tense eddies of fiddle and sympathetic acoustic strums, her dry husk of a voice sounds more resigned than outraged, as she realizes she's too late to save Delia. Several decades too late, as the case may be: The Delia she’s singing about is the title character in the popular murder ballad "Delia's Gone", written by Dick Toops and Karl Silbersdorf and recorded by Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Waylon Jennings, and multiple times by Johnny Cash.
At just 27, Alynda Lee Segarra, the lynchpin of Hurray For The Riff Raff, already has a biography that reads like the outline of a folk ballad. Born in The Bronx, she left home at 17 to live a transient lifestyle, travelling the US on freight trains and falling in with a collective of hobo musicians, before finally settling down amidst the violence and disruption of post-Katrina New Orleans. More John Steinbeck novella than diary of a teen runaway, it's a catalogue of experience that belies her youth and informs her sound.
On the title cut of Small Town Heroes, Alynda Lee Segarra, the mastermind (and sometimes sole member) behind ramshackle New Orleans-based folk ensemble Hurray for the Riff Raff, wrestles with the fallout of a relationship gone sour over a single finger-picked guitar paired with the slow, distant freight train hum of a Hammond B-3, and reaches a simple, well-weathered conclusion; "I tempted fate, and I acted smart/I grew some callous on my heart". Segarra's take on the Big Easy, and dusty, boxcar Americana in general, is hardly groundbreaking, but her sonorous and soulful voice, and her ability to weave a real sense of place and emotional authenticity into well-worn folk motifs make for a compelling listen, especially when she peppers the familiar with a pinch or two of subversion. Both "Crash on the Highway" and "The Body Electric" are built upon a foundation of tumbleweed-strewn, dust bowl fatalism, but the former turns tragedy into amusing tour diary fodder ("We can't make it to our gig on time"), and the latter offers a up a smart, feminist take on the traditional murder ballad ("Like an old sad song, you heard it all before/Deliah's gone but I'm settling the score").
This Crescent City crew's breakthrough LP could be called Inside Alynda Lee Segarra. Like the Coen brothers' Llewyn Davis, the Bronx-bred Segarra is a troubadour steeped in tradition and shivering on the road – see "Crash on the Highway," a boozy shuffle that finds her homesick in a German traffic jam en route to a gig. Her folk-roots music feels both ancient and modern, from the title track's drug-damaged characters to the gunslinging young thugs in "St.
Can southern gothic be playful? That's one question raised by the fifth album from Alynda Lee Segarra's troupe. Small Town Heroes places at its centre The Body Electric, a song that takes the template of the murder ballad – "He shot her down, put her body in the river" – then asks why the killing of women becomes a fit subject for entertainment, "while the whole world sings/ sings it like a song". The playfulness, too, is apparent in the way Small Town Heroes flits across genres, but without seeming to be Americana on Ritalin.
Hurray for the Riff Raff Small Town Heroes (ATO) Alynda Lee Segarra makes up the whole of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Originally from the Bronx, she's settled in New Orleans, and in many ways Small Town Heroes, her fifth – and first for a big label – reflects the reverence she possesses for the Big Easy. Segarra, occasionally with friends, makes music richly steeped in the American folk tradition.
Alynda Lee Segarra’s story is closer to Woody Guthrie’s than most of her contemporary counterparts. Raised in The Bronx by her aunt, she decided to skip town when she was 17, riding the rails and eventually landing in her now-home, New Orleans. At 27, the singer/songwriter behind Hurray For The Riff Raff wears those miles with melancholy, yet confident vocals and a razor-sharp social wit, relying more on straight-to-the-point, hard-hitting phrases than ambiguous poetics.
Whether she’s playing a lone lo-fi guitar or fronting her Velvets-rooted studio band, whether she’s singing as if only to herself or opening up with hints of torchy sorrow, Angel Olsen aims to keep things blunt and essential on her second album, “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” (Jagjaguwar ….