Good morning, PineTreeRepublic citizens! This month’s WorldBeat post features an album that oozes with the rich traditions of America’s pre-eminent musical city, New Orleans. As it takes us on a journey of soothing bluegrass, folk, blues, and rhythm & blues tunes, this album packs enough lyrical bite to make us contemplate the social ills plaguing a city that, perhaps in some other world, could be the most idyllic melting pot on Earth.
April 2015 Feature Album: Small Town Heroes by Hurray for the Riff-Raff (2014) New Orleans is one of the rare places that’s at once an idea, a state of mind, a metaphor – and, as we’re reminded all too often, a real living city that experiences more than its fair share of societal and political issues. Much like the Mississippi River that defines its geography, the city serves as a gathering place for many of America’s musical traditions, including bluegrass, jazz, folk, blues, rhythm & blues, and many others. In an age when being “influenced” by country or blues or jazz often means sampling some superficial, pop-friendly example of the genre, New Orleans musicians seem to consistently forge interesting connections between diverse styles while continuing to preserve their rich legacies. At the risk of pushing the metaphor too much, the city’s music scene almost serves as an ideal of what globalization “should” be: a meaningful exchange between different cultures that explores new ways of expression, while continuing to progress the traditions that have been built up by previous generations.
And then, of course, there is the other reality of New Orleans that its residents must struggle with daily – the high crime rate, poor schools, persistent racism, endemically corrupt politics, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina that wreak havoc on a massive scale. In some sense, this duality provides a perpetual creative tension for the city’s artists. On the one hand, they have access to a steady supply of songwriting material simply by walking around their neighbourhoods; on the other hand, artists who seek to progress social change may find no other place where they feel quite so stuck.
Enter Alynda Lee Segarra and her band, Hurray for the Riff Raff. With their 2014 album Small Town Heroes, they seamlessly weave the best of America’s southern music traditions, while addressing the persistent ills that plague their adopted city, and that in many cases afflict a broader slice of society beyond New Orleans. The album opens on a somewhat cheery note with the bluegrass-inspired Blue Ridge Mountain, which harkens the classic Appalachian story of John Henry – a metaphor for the clash between faith in the individual and broader systemic forces that come crashing down on one’s sense of idealism. From there, the record takes a turn through blues and folk, spinning stories of crashes on the highway, break-ups, doing time in jail, and even an oblique reference to suicide. Save for a quick detour to San Francisco, New Orleans serves as the canvas for these songs of struggle – there are just enough references to remind you that the city’s pulling the strings, without taking the spotlight away from the individual dramas in each song.
Approximately halfway through the journey comes one of the album’s true gems, and arguably its most original song, “The Body Electric”. Segarra penned this song as a response to the predominance of murder ballads featuring a man shooting a woman, and by extension, the broader victim-blaming culture she perceives in today’s society. It is a perfectly crafted, mournful yet beautiful track that leaves an impression long after the song is over. You can almost hear an audible sigh in the brief violin transition to the chorus:
Musically, Small Town Heroes seems to play with the New Orleans cannon, filtering it through the band’s style of melancholy songwriting. Witness the song “St. Roch Blues”, which feels like a stripped-down, modern day take on Fats Domino’s New Orleans classic, “On Blueberry Hill“:
While Fats Domino bemoans the loss of his lover (“All of those vows you made/Were never to be”), Segarra implores her lover: “Baby please don’t go down to New Orleans/Cause you don’t know the things I’ve seen.”
Despite all the dark content on this record, Hurray for the Riff Raff serves it up in a musical style that soothes, whether it leans more toward folk, blues, or otherwise. You can almost imagine the band singing their city’s troubles while enjoying a warm summer’s evening, sipping a Sazerac cocktail from the balcony. On “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)”, Segarra puts this feeling into words:
The Sun is laughing in my face/Shining its light on my mistakes.
You could be my Adam/I’ll be your summertime
I’ll feed you watermelon off the vine/I know it’s wrong, but that’s alright
Perhaps those lyrics, along with the band’s general approach to music, hold the key to surviving a beautiful but troubled place like New Orleans: to not shy away from documenting the things that make living difficult, but to also seek comfort in the joys of the city’s rich cultural tapestry that has been developed from the struggles of previous generations.
Key Tracks: Blue Ridge Mountain, The Body Electric, St. Roch Blues