Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Past Is Still Alive

Hurray for the Riff Raff The Past is Still Alive review

At first blush The Past Is Still Alive seems to be a return to form for Hurray for the Riff Raff—its drawling melodies and seemingly straightforward lyrics recall their early folk albums more than their recent conceptual experiments. But that superficial assessment undersells this achievement. A closer look reveals the true scale of lyrical depth and disarmingly lush but surprisingly deep arrangements.

This may not feel like a radical step forward in the evolution of their sound, but therein lies the quiet genius of Alynda Segarra’s songcraft. The confines of conventional folk balladry worked perfectly fine for the stories Segarra had to tell on Look Out Mama, My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, and Small Town Heroes. With The Navigator in 2017, a concept album verging on rock opera, Segarra began to break those confines in order to tell much bigger stories and then dissolved them entirely for 2022’s increasingly poignant Life on Earth

Now The Past Is Still Alive closes the loop, synthesizing those storied accomplishments thus far into a brilliant new kind of folk. Lyrically their new album retains the tone of their last, surviving trauma both wide-reaching and personal: climate catastrophe, homophobic violence, the opioid crisis. Sonically, Segarra does draw from an old palette of folk and country instrumentation, but the breadth of these arrangements reaches further than ever.

Segarra assembles a cadre of alt-folk compatriots for this project, tapping brothers Brad and Phil Cook of Megafaun to join longtime collaborator Yan Westerlund for their core recording band. Meg Duffy of Hand Habits and Matt Douglas of the Mountain Goats feature on guitar and saxophones respectively throughout. Conor Oberst (whose Bright Eyes bandmate Mike Mogis also plays a variety of instruments here), S.G. Goodman, and Anjimile each harmonize on a handful of songs. The result is a rich and diversely arranged sound.

On lead single “Colossus of Roads” Segarra combines their most country inflected vocals yet (there’s just something about the way “gunfire” rolls off their tongue) with direct if unconventional Americana lyricism: “Say goodbye to America / I wanna see it dissolve. / I can be your poster boy for the great American fall.” An iconic dobro guitar twangs gently behind these words, sliding in and out of the foreground to underscore the tone. It’s a strikingly somber moment, but also a tender one. The title track sees them rise even further as a modern folk hero, urging us to “test [our] drugs, remember Narcan…Don’t become an angel with a broken wing,” while saxophone and electric guitar chug along buoyantly, wurlitzer piano and marimba twinkling softly. It’s less a warning of danger than a rallying cry to keep each other alive.

From its first chord closing track “Ogallala” feels like a finale. Segarra’s lilting melody rises and falls as if taking the first steps towards the mountain, gesturing to the height. The misty pattering of slide guitar and saxophone grows steadily to the expectedly bombastic downpour on the summit as Segarra belts out the chorus. Segarra’s own layered vocals self-harmonize, and a bassy modulation on their vocals recalls Meg Duffy’s gender-shredded cover of Neil Young, flattening and deepening their voice on the lead line, giving their harmony a haunting angelic quality. An undeniably apocalyptic nihilism pervades the track, at first obliviating (“You know that scene / At the end of Titanic? / Well, I’m the one who’s still playing on the deck.”), inverting to pure compassion: “To watch the world burn, / With a tear in my eye…I’m right on time.” In the end, Segarra seems to lovingly turn everything on its head—the past and future, their own feelings, even folk music itself—in order to make new meaning.

Label: Nonesuch

Year: 2024

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Hurray for the Riff Raff The Past is Still Alive review

Hurray for the Riff Raff : The Past Is Still Alive

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