Review: Small Town Heroes by Hurray for the Riff Raff

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A murder ballad turned on its head in which the narrators rescues the female victim in an act of feminist heroism.  Commentary on gun violence in America that is present and poignant without being heavy-handed. A deep and rich blend of country, western, blues, soul, and Americana heritage in fresh takes on cultural stalwarts such as the Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues, the iconic Blue Ridge Mountains, Walt Whitman, and old time trains.

All this and more you’ll find in Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s latest release. It left me speechless at numerous places upon first listen, stimulated not just my ears but also my cultural consciousness, my sense of place in history, and aroused in me a sometimes dormant but fundamental appreciation for old time country music and delta blues that I can usually only feel when I visit home. I love this ability of music to transport me to a specific time and place and remind me where I’ve come from.

The earnest sultriness of her voice, the deftly-woven lyrical patterns, the sharpness of her staccato rhythms, the languid ballads and harmonies, multifaceted instrumentation: fiddle, harmonica, accordion, and organ all combine to make this a gem of an album.

The audio production quality alone should make any music lover pay attention. Though she included lots of different instruments on a variety of tracks, each sound comes through cleanly, and with a precision of balance to the other colors and textures in the aural palette. Nowhere do vocals overpower instruments, or do guitars overpower percussion. Everything has its right place. I appreciate that. The use of jazz brushes on the snare in “Good Time Blues” pretty much single-handedly transports the listener to a Southern front porch with a warm breeze and a rocking chair. Utterly mesmerizing.

The first six tracks are flawless, and the second side keeps to the form with only one or two places where my attention waned briefly.  For the vast majority of this listen I was rapt with full attention to Alynda Lee Segarra’s creative process and reveling in the final result. The final track “Forever and a Day” is more of a traditional Scotch-Irish dirge but with an Old West atmosphere, complete with bagpipes and haunting funereal tone but lyrics about Senoritas, lassos and the desert sky. It brings a dramatic finality to the album, and possesses enough gravitas that it almost as if it’s the last song she’ll ever record.

But let’s hope not. Let’s hope for more and more of the wonder, heartache, and musical genius that inspired this year’s first truly excellent release. It’s a keeper.  

My favorite track: End of the Line. You can buy it and the whole album on iTunes and at http://www.hurrayfortheriffraff.com

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