Nick Bollinger discusses an album that explores the Puerto Rican heritage of Hurray For The Riff Raff's Alynda Lee Segarra.
An a cappella gospel group sings in a subway while trains and passengers arrive and depart. It’s a field recording – it might have been made with a cellphone – still the sense of place is palpable. It’s the gritty scene-setting opening track of an album that is all about place.
And in the songs that follow, the urban setting filled in with episodes from the life of one of that city’s souls. The city in question is never named, though all signposts suggest it is New York. But the character we follow through these songs does: Navita Milagros Negron. That’s really an alter-ego for Hurray For The Riff Raff’s singer, songwriter and driving force Alynda Lee Segarra.
Though her band are nominally based in New Orleans, where Segarra has lived for much of the past decade, she grew up in the Bronx, a daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. She was always a misfit, she says, and in adolescence became a rebel. It was her search for identity that found her, in her teens, travelling the country, hopping freight trains like Woody Guthrie half a century before her, eventually winding up in Louisiana. But it is that same search for identity that has, ultimately, led her back to where she began.
In songs like ‘Fourteen Floors’ we get images of tenement life, isolation and desperation, in a place that could well be the Bronx. But the character Segarra has created here doesn’t stay still or take her fate lying down. She’s restless, and on a quest; she might feel as though she’s invisible, but she is a hungry ghost.
As a young itinerant musician, Segarra naturally fell in with folkies. An acoustic guitar was the ideal instrument to travel with and the folk format suited her instinct for message songs with strong simple choruses. Hurray For The Riff Raff’s early albums – particularly 2014’s breakthrough Small Town Heroes – couched those songs in warm, woodsy arrangements that comfortably fit the alt-country label. But Segarra was never a strict formalist. A standout from the earlier album Look Out Mama was her ‘Ode To John and Yoko’; John Lennon had been one of her early heroes and the song mixed Americana with echoes of psychedelic Beatles.
On these latest songs she moves even further away from those Americana roots. ‘The Navigator’, the album’s title song, sits right in the centre of the album it represents the song-cycle’s turning point. The singer might still be searching, but musically she finds something here; something that belongs to her. The rhythm and the whole percussive arrangement of the song is distinctly Puerto Rican. Those beats that originated in her family’s Caribbean home have, like her transplanted family, survived in this dark new world. Yet even then, there is the threat that it could all be taken away again; something Segarra articulates powerfully in a song called ‘Rican Beach’.
The odyssey of Navita Milagros Negron reaches some sort of conclusion in what is almost the final song, and the album’s grandest, most conceptual track, ‘Pa’lante’. Incorporating samples of the Puerto Rican poet Pedro Pietri, the song is once again almost Beatle-ish in its construction, moving through its interconnected passages like ‘A Day In The Life’, before returning to its original theme and powerful conclusion.
Alynda Lee Segarra has written her share of songs that any of the great Americana songwriters would be proud of. But here she’s come up with something that no one else could have written, because the story, the music and even the language is her own. It’s a powerful finale to an album that looks ahead by heading back home.
Songs featured: Living In Ther City, Fourteen Floors, Hungry Ghost, The Navigator, Rican Beach, Pa’lante.
The Navigator is available on ATO Records.