Politics – some singers avoid it all together, others make a conscious decision to delve into it, but some songwriters, such as Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, seem to get that life is politics. When Alynda sings of her own personal journey; as a woman, as a Puerto Rican, as a New Yorker, she seems to, consciously or otherwise, frame her experiences in the context of a wider struggle for political justice.
Rewind to 2014’s break-through release, Small Town Heroes, and you can hear an artist finding their voice. Hurray For The Riff Raff’s sound may have owed much to the country and roots music of her adopted hometown of New Orleans, but Alynda’s words owed an equal debt to the Riot Grrrl scene she attended on the Lower East Side. As Alynda says of those shows, “those riot grrrl shows were a place where young girls could just hang out and not have to worry about feeling weird, like they didn’t belong”. Small Town Heroes’ stand out moment, The Body Electric, was also the best example of the worlds juxtaposed in the music of Hurray For The Riff Raff. It may have sounded like an old-timey murder ballad as Alynda sang, “you’re gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river”, but it was anything but. It was a call to arms to women everywhere, in her own words, “it was anger, a desire for justice and a dream of change”. It was a song that said to women that the time was ready to put an end to domestic violence, and for the masses to put the power back into the hands of the oppressed.
Think about this for a second, back in 2014 Alynda sang, “tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s so gone mad?” Now just imagine how angry she’s feeling in 2017.
It is of course important to remember when listening to The Navigator, Hurray For The Riff Raff’s new album, that it was largely written before the recent political upheaval, but equally it is important to remember that the problems facing women, people from minority backgrounds and political activists did not begin with the Trump administration. Trump is merely a symptom of the increasing divide in American society, something Alynda openly challenges, “I feel like my generation, through groups like Black Live Matter, is really focusing on that type of intersectionality – if one of us is not free, then none of us are free.”
Part of Alynda’s journey towards her own personal freedom, was noticing that in her music there was an element of her story missing. As she notes, “the more I toured, ending up in the middle of nowhere bars from Texas to Tennessee, I just started feeling more and more like, I don’t belong here, I gotta get back to my people”. Whilst her adopted home town of New Orleans was all over her music, her own story, that of a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx, was conspicuous by its absence. Interestingly, to discover her own story Alynda made the atypical decision to write through the eyes of a character, The Navigator aka Navita Milagros Negrón. The Navigator is portrayed as a sort of part heroine and part narrator for the album’s cinematic journey, which plots a course from the streets of the Bronx back into an attempt to connect and honour her Puerto Rican heritage.
A lofty concept for an album, certainly, but one that Hurray For The Riff Raff, with the help of producer Paul Butler fully embraces. The challenge of producing The Navigator is the way that it slowly shifts from the opening track Entrance, a full on Broadway extravaganza, through to the albums conclusions by which time it has become a full-blown Puerto Rican extravaganza, taking in the sounds of traditional plena and son montuno music of the Caribbean island. That this shift is managed with such taste, care and subtlety is one of the album’s most impressive artifices.
What The Navigator does, that many concept albums fail to achieve, is tie the lyrical concept into the musical context; this is not just a lyrical exploration of Puerto Rican heritage, it is also an attempt to merge musical worlds. The record begins in New York, opening track Entrance enters with Alynda joining a barbershop quartet; it’s almost as if New York has arrived on mass to wish her well on her upcoming internal journey. While the other early tracks are equally Americanised; Living In The City has a bombastic rock’n’roll riff and Gospel tinged backing, while recent single Hungry Ghost is as close to a straight up radio-friendly rocker as Hurray For The Riff Raff have ever got, recalling Jenny Lewis’ work with The Watson Twins. As the record progresses though, the more Latin influences begin to shine through; it’s somewhat fittingly towards the outro of Nothings’s Gonna Change That Girl, that the change kicks in, into the percussion comes a slight slinky shuffle, a rhythm that seems quietly exotic to our Westernised ears. The exploration continues into the second half of the record, the title track sounds like a furious salsa running headlong into Timber Timbre’s sleazy aura, while recent single Rican Beach is littered with a rich percussive flare and more than a touch of Santana in the fluttering guitar line.
The Navigator is a record that is so musically intelligent it actually makes you reconsider how you think of musical genres. Those, us included, who labelled Hurray For The Riff Raff’s previous output as Americana or roots music, were always completely wrong, or at least wrong about just what Americana is. America has always been a nation of immigrants, and as such so has Americana. The roots music Hurray For The Riff Raff tap into, is not just American, it’s Latin, it’s black, it’s European, it is the diverse music of the world, and in highlighting different elements of that sound, Hurray For The Riff Raff make us realise just how universal music is.
Lyrically, whilst The Navigator is a deeply personal record, coming from a place of self-discovery and cultural pride, Alynda remains as always an activist, her sense that wrongs must be righted is there throughout. Rican Beach is lyrically stunning, simultaneously decrying gentrification, “first they stole our language, then they stole our names, then they stole the things that brought us fame”, the politicians who push racist rhetoric into the mainstream, “now all the politicians just squawk their mouths, they say, “we’ll build a wall to keep them out”, and even the artists who refuse to take a stand, “all the poets were dying of a silence disease, so it happened quickly and with much ease”. The track ends with Alynda repeating the line, “I’ll keep fighting ’til the end”, with a steely determination in her voice that makes the point even more bluntly than the words.
Elsewhere the record tackles all sorts of topics; Living In The City seems to hint at the difficulty of making a living in the face of increasingly expensive city living, while the title track adds a feisty spin as she sings, “today I feel weak but tomorrow I’ll feel a queen” and the excellent Settle overflows with an anger at the idea that people should just accept their lot in life.
The moment the record truly comes to a pinnacle is the penultimate track Pa’lante. It starts off as a heartfelt piano ballad, before via some heavy percussive pulses it picks up to a jaunty rag-time skiffle, then, like The Beatles classic A Day In The Life, it collapses down to nothing and re-emerges a completely different beast. The break down in the middle is filled with the voice of legendary Puerto Rican poet Pedro Pieti, reading from his classic poem, The Puerto Rican Obituary, his tribute to the revolutionary Latino youth group the Young Lords Party. A poem of which the New York Times states, “three decades ago, a poem ignited a movement”, it couldn’t be a more fitting tribute. While the track begins life as a battered, almost broken ballad, it re-emerges energised, full of fight and anger, Alynda half screaming out the closing refrain. She speaks a series of tributes, via the Puerto Rican phrase Pa’lante meaning roughly go forward, to those who fought, died and continue to fight for the rights of Puerto Rican’s and minorities everywhere, “to those who came before we say Pa’lante”. Still now, after however many hundred listens it makes the hairs on the back of our neck stand to attention, it’s one of the most moving and powerful tracks we’ve ever heard.
There’s so much to love about The Navigator, it’s a fabulously in-depth study on identity, politics, and the importance of tapping into your heritage. Arguably even more important than that, it’s a wonderful record, the first great album of 2017, and one we’ll be impressed if anyone gets near to matching this year.
The Navigator is out March 10th via ATO Records. Click HERE for details of upcoming Hurray For The Riff Raff shows and more information.