Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator

Hurray for the Riff Raff is the folk/rock/Americana project of Alynda Lee Segarra, a New York native and member of the city’s Puerto Rican diaspora before leaving home at 17 and moving to New Orleans, from which her band is based.  Her newest album, the third for major indie label ATO, is a blend of folk rock, country and Latin American music, and acts thematically as a cohesive effort focusing on cultural identity, appropriation, and overcoming from within a minority community.

The record begins with an a cappella folk ballad, complete with barbershop harmonies, singing “One for the navigator, get on board!” Segarra thus acts as the navigator on a passage across her own identity and the America as she sees it.  The second sequenced “Living in the City” is the record’s catchiest song and one of its most satisfying, with its colorful harmonies and overlapping guitar riffs, while Segarra describes her vision to escape the city  – “Well I”ll lock my dreams away / I’ll watch the city quiver”.  It’s followed by “Hungry Ghost”, which takes a vocal and melodic page out of Mitski’s book as a dark, bass-led rocker, which at first seems to show Segarra dissing an ex-lover, but within the context of the album reveals itself to be one of many songs about her own identity – “I been nobody’s child / So my blood’s starting running wild”.  This record is a political one, but it is clearly from one singular point of view.

Many of these tracks borrow heavily from folk tradition, not just in their instrumentation and cadence, but in Segarra’s use of repeating phrases, timeless metaphors (“Oh it’s getting lonely / Oh, at the bottom of a bottle”) and traditional structures.  The unique and interesting spin Navigator puts on Americana, however, is the infusion of Latin American and Caribbean salsa and calypso music.  While the record’s first four tracks don’t show sings of deviation, the mid-album title track opens with a recording of Spanish dialogue before plunging into a modern tango ballad, featuring guitar licks reminiscent of Santana, as Segarra positions herself as a navigator of her people, leading them out of the darkness of today toward the optimism of tomorrow.  “Rican Beach”, another sultry, Caribbean track (complete with bongos and steel guitar) is the most pointedly political song here, but unfortunately offers some of the clunkiest lyrics (“And all the poets were dying of a silence disease / So it happened quickly and with much ease.”)  Of course there’s a Trump reference – “The politicians, they just flap their mouths / They say we’ll build a wall to keep them out” – because how can you make music in 2017 and not reference Trump?!  Segarra is perhaps better positioned than most to express disdain, but it still doesn’t score any points for originality.

Two of The Navigator‘s best tracks come in its final third.  “Fourteen Floors” is an anticipatory piano and drum affair where Segarra describes her father’s struggle to reach a country that has made life so difficult for those like him, singing “My father said it took a million years / Well he said that it felt like a million years just to get here” while numerous vocal overdubs whisper the same phrase around her.  The song builds tension but ultimately never collapses into a huge moment the way I want it to, which is one of my major gripes with the record.  The penultimate “Pa’lante” does better in this department, featuring a heart-filled and passionate coda as Seggara raises a toast to “All who lost their pride / To all who had to survive”, but again doesn’t ever break down into the mass of guitars, pianos, drums, etc. that the build teases.  The record does end with an interesting conceptual moment, as the group reprises the opening track but in markedly Latin American fashion, suggesting a transformation of traditional American folk into the style of the country’s fastest growing minorities.

The Navigator is focused, well-produced and well-written, but its melodies are often more folksy than catchy, and it seems to consistently content itself with easy-going arrangements and passages instead of reaching for epic climaxes, the highs and lows that the content seems capable of inspiring.  None of the songs are bad, and the lyrics are personal and relevant.  But while the record successfully fuses two traditional styles of music, it still doesn’t feel like a major breakthrough because it rarely shoots for the stars.  I also think Segarra is capable of more nuanced and detailed lyrics, and while it may be a stylistic choice to opt for simpler, folksier lyricism, I think her instrumentation and vocal twang do enough work on that front.  Still, I think the record is a success, and wouldn’t fault anyone from enjoying the hell out of it.  I can see it being an anthem for Latin American communities in the Trump era, I just wish it was more anthemic.

Score: 8/13

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