The on-the-road lifestyle has long been synonymous with country music. You know, the whole “wind at your back” way of living — experiencing different people and places, hopping trains, and exploring untethered. And like with any genre of music, some songs are born from experience, some from desire, and others are works of pure fiction.
When Hurray for the Riff Raff’s singer, Alynda Segarra, sings about such things, it comes from her own journey. She grew up in the Bronx, New York, and was involved in the city’s hardcore punk scene in her youth. At 17, she got the fever to explore North America and checked it out by jumping on trains to get from place to place.
Her path led her to New Orleans, and in 2007 she joined up with the area band, Dead Man Street Orchestra, a train-travelin’ band of tramps that embraced the sounds of ragtime, blues, gypsy, and jazz, playing wherever they could set up shop.
Hurray for the Riff Raff also formed that year. They released their first EP, Crossing the Rubicon, and started showing off their rich combination of blues, country, Americana, and folk. Currently, Segarra is joined by members Caitlin Gray and Jordan Hyde. Though she’s 30 years old, Segarra’s voice carries a soulfulness and wisdom. At times, it’s as if she exists specifically to take her spot in the timeline of roots-oriented music. She easily conjures up predecessors in songs like “Look Out Mama,” on the 2012 release of the same name. You can hear shades of Townes Van Zandt signing “White Freightliner.”
Hurray’s new release is titled The Navigator, not a surprising choice for a band whose lead singer has such an investigative spirit. The 12-song album has made fans fall even harder for the band, with critics going cuckoo for it, too. It delivers what Hurray for the Riff Raff has gotten folks used to: raw songs that take components of rootsy styles to produce mesmerizing soulful numbers. It also cranks things up a few notches.
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While songs like “Life to Save” embody country blues, “Living in the City” features a more spoken-style vocal delivery that’s reminiscent of Lou Reed telling his own stories about city life and its characters in “Sweet Jane” — or even a much less punk-rocky nod to tracks like Jim Carroll’s classic “People Who Died.”
Segarra is Puerto Rican, and she examines her roots in this record, from the incorporation of the rhythmic drumming and dance sounds of traditional salsa music to the lyrics that touch on both the personal and the regional. Though “Rican Beach” is about a fictional town, it speaks to the identity issues Puerto Ricans face, living in a territory overseen by the United States, and also to cultural appropriation and human rights issues on a broad scale. The words are unfortunately all too universal, “First they stole our language / Then they stole our names / Then they stole the things that brought us faith / And then they stole our neighbors/And then they stole our streets / And they left us to die on Rican Beach.”
“Pa’Lante” is another heavy hitter. The term means “onward, forward,” and is another spotlight on her culture, as it was also the name of a radical Puerto Rican newspaper put out by activist group the Young Lords in the 1970s. The song extols struggles existent throughout Puerto Rico’s history. Her fight through the song from grit to a more triumphant end is a true testament to never giving up. When the shit goes down, you want Segarra and her team on your side.
Hurray for the Riff Raff perform at Crescent Ballroom on Wednesday, June 7.