Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Hurray for the Riff Raff: Small Town Heroes Revisited

With both the UK and the USA seemingly becoming more insular and inward-looking with each new day, now would be a good time to revisit Hurray for the Riff Raff's Small Town Heroes even were it not for the fact that its successor is due out next month. Originally released in February 2014, this album may just be the reminder we all need right now of the importance of open-mindedness and progressive, compassionate thinking.

You wouldn't necessarily realise that at first glance, mind: for a record made by a young feminist from the Bronx, Small Town Heroes actually has a pretty old-fashioned feel. This is a rich-sounding Americana record steeped in the age-old tropes and traditions of folk, blues and country music. Most of the compositions are built upon simple blues progressions; that Dobro on the album cover is variously accompanied by banjos, fiddles, and at one point a rowdy harpsichord; and even Alynda Segarra's lyrics occasionally feel like a pastiche of dusty ol' cowboy songs and foot-stompin' bluegrass tunes.

"Said I got the blues for my baby left me by the San Francisco Bay..."

And yet, when you look more closely at this album, it becomes clear that what Segarra was really doing here was working within a very traditional musical framework while espousing deceptively progressive ideas - in other words, she took some of America's oldest songwriting conventions and updated them for the new '10s.

In some cases, this meant challenging these genres and a few of their more problematic tropes. The Body Electric, one of STH's key songs, is a response to all those murder ballads where some poor woman gets shot to death and tossed in the river. In a recent interview with God Is In The TV, Segarra explained The Body Electric thusly:
"I was at a show where there was a young man playing a guitar, and he was playing a murder ballad about shooting down his woman. At that time, there was a lot of talk going on about police brutality and gun restrictions, and while I was listening I thought, 'this is bullshit!' You know, rap music gets criticised a lot for its supposedly misogynistic lyrics, but here we have a white man singing about shooting his girlfriend for cheating, and nobody says a word! It made me really angry"

In other cases, though, the subjects on which American songwriters have dwelled for generations suit Segarra's outlook rather well. For instance, there are a few neat travelling songs on Small Town Heroes - most notably Crash on the Highway - and the timeless image of a band squeezing their gear into a grubby little van and hitting the road complements quite elegantly the album's broader point about how there's a whole world full of cities and towns and villages, each one full of individuals with their own stories and viewpoints and experiences that might differ dramatically from your own.

Speaking of individuals, individuality and identity are a very important part of Hurray of the Riff Raff's MO as well. This is made clear by the artwork for Small Town Heroes: a portrait of Alynda Segarra surrounded by things that she presumably considers central to her identity, such as the Puerto Rican flag, a bottle of tequila, and what appears to be some sort of gender equality symbol.

Other symbols on the Small Town Heroes cover include a yellow rose, the palm of someone's right hand, and three arrows. If anyone knows the significance of these icons, do let me know.

The album's opening track, Blue Ridge Mountain, can be read as a very positive message of self-empowerment: Segarra sings"my heart is a blue ridge mountain, and my head an overflowing fountain...but I never, never knew", sounding like she has just woken up and realised for the first time the extent of her own strength and potential. Heck, even the band's name - Hurray for the Riff Raff - is a jubilant expression of faith in people power, and the different voices and stories presented on the Small Town Heroes album (the sorrowful outlaw who sings Good Time Blues; the frustrated lover heard on No One Else; the incensed narrator of The Body Electric) demonstrate that every person has their own unique identity even when they're simultaneously part of a larger cause or community.

Small Town Heroes is an album with many messages to deliver and many lessons to teach, but if you need a quick summary, your best bet is to look at the title track, Small Town Heroes itself. This song peeks into the lives of several different characters - the cheatin' man, the young women he leaves in his wake, the popular girl who gets "all her drugs for free", the father who kicks her out - all of whom are united by the fact that they really just want to love and to be loved.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Segarra asks the listener, "all these people and all these things - what's the point in a wedding ring? We might not be here when next year comes." This is again representative of her restless, travelling nature, but also of the transience of life in general. Small Town Heroes knows that nothing is permanent, and so it encourages us all to keep moving, to see as much of this world as possible, to meet as many people and devour as many stories and give as much love as we possibly can.

Of course, this album was written, recorded and released back in the Obama years. Small Town Heroes isn't always a happy album - Segarra knows how to pluck a weepy hearstring, a talent she wields mercilessly on Levon's Dream and the title track - but it's generally a pretty *friendly* album. At no point does Segarra sound like she's spoiling for a brawl, whereas Hurray for the Riff Raff's forthcoming new album does have a distinctly fighty sense of purpose to it.

The Navigator, due out on the 10th of March, is a Riff Raff album for the Donald Trump years. The subversive elements that lay dormant in the nooks and crannies of Small Town Heroes are now out of hibernation and ready for battle - I'll be reviewing the new album properly when it's released, but for now, here's the kickass lead single Rican Beach to whet your appetite and set the flames of resistance burning in your belly.

"The politicians, they just squawked their mouths - said, 'We'll build a wall to keep them out!' And all the poets were dying of a silence disease, so it happened quickly and with much ease."

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