Thursday, August 7, 2014

album review: 'small town heroes' by hurray for the riff raff (RETRO REVIEW)

You know, for being the only country music critic on YouTube, I haven't covered a true country record in quite some time. Hell, I haven't even really talked about the state of bro-country in a while, which used to be part of my general purview!

Well, believe it or not, there's a reason for that: mostly because country music seems to be in a profoundly confused place right now. The leading acts in the bro-country wave seem to be running as fast as they can back towards something close to neotraditional country while those that are sticking around seem to be actively getting more belligerent and worse. And while I do mostly like Maggie & Tae's 'Girl In A Country Song' for its wit, you can tell they're being pushed by Big Machine in order to play both sides of the equation. And that's not even touching on the more electronic-inspired edges creeping into country music courtesy of Jason Aldean and Sam Hunt, none of which sound remotely cohesive or close to good. It's gotten to the point where 'Hope You Get Lonely', arguably the worst song from Cole Swindell's self-titled album - an album which is on my short list of the worst albums of the year - is starting to rise up the charts.

So on second thought, let's completely ignore whatever's happening in the mainstream and talk about a country record that I've gotten a couple of requests for that came out earlier this year, from an act that's the furthest thing from mainstream polish. This band is called Hurray For The Riff Raff, a stripped-down borderline-acoustic folk and southern gothic-inspired group who gathered a fair bit of buzz after their very solid 2012 release Look Out Mama, which I really liked for its grimy mix and the exposed edges in the production. But while the band might have some traditional elements in its instrumentation and frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra's voice, Hurray For The Riff Raff lies significantly further to the left side of any political spectrum, both in promoting a queer image and singing about some loaded political subjects in their material. That, if anything was enough to attract my interest, even if it took me far too long to get to them.

Anyway, after releasing a Kickstarter-funded album of covers titled My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, they released a new album and their major label debut titled Small Town Heroes earlier this year, so I finally took the time to check it out: how is it?

Well, it's pretty good, let me stress this, but it's also an album that takes a step precisely in the opposite direction that I normally like hearing in bands like these - because it definitely isn't difficult to spot that Hurray For The Riff Raff signed to a major label, especially in the production and mix balance, and just like the shift between Jason Eady's When The Money's All Gone to AM Country Heaven, you get solid record that have just lost a hint of the texture that I really loved about their earlier releases. That's not saying Small Town Heroes is bad - far from it, the comparison to Jason Eady is a sign just how much I like this album - but at the same time I can't help but feel it could have been a little stronger.

So let's get said production issues out of the way first. The thing to keep in mind is that Look Out Mama showed an edge of grime and ramshackle roughness to its production and style that complimented Segarra's voice and the songwriting just detailed enough to create a vivid picture of the ragged New Orleans neighbourhoods that inspired the songs. Here, the instrumentation and production balance has been cleaned up, still showing the edges of the guitarwork but a little cleaner, the drumming a little less raucous, the addition of keyboards and broader instrumentation showing more varied colour but not quite as much texture. It's really in the slower, more stripped back tracks where said texture comes back to the forefront, like with the sandy percussion on 'Good Time Blues (An Outlaw's Lament)', the lonely guitars on 'The New SF Bay Blues', the ragged organ and guitar on 'St. Roch Blues' and the title track, and the violin supporting the lonely 'Forever Just A Day'. And let me stress that the melodies here are good, slow and achingly beautiful in painting their pictures. But it's the more upbeat tracks that completely falter on this record - a little too garish, a little too overstated, they just do not work for me.

Now to be fair, my issues with the production aren't quite complaints, because really, they're doing what makes sense, especially with regards to the vocals. Segarra's voice has always been one of the biggest draws of the band: soulful, worn, mature, and holding a lot of quiet dignity and power behind it that never comes across as overwrought. And thus moving her forward in the mix, adding some tasteful reverb, it makes sense, and it helps that Segarra is still an emotionally evocative performer. I can't say I was ever really a fan of the male backing vocals that come in on 'No One Else' and 'I Know It's Wrong (But That's Alright)', but that's a minor nitpick on a song that has a really clipped guitar solo that just sounds a lot more awkward and forced.

But you don't move the vocals more to the front of the mix if the songwriting's not important, so let's dig into lyrics and themes - and I'll give it to Hurray For The Riff Raff, there's solid quality here. Sure, you get your lighter, less-substantial songs like 'Blue Ridge Mountain' or the laid back 'Crash On The Highway', a song about appreciating life now given you could have been in that pileup that's left you stuck in traffic, but it's in the more somber songs that Segarra really shows her songwriting chops. 'Good Time Blues (An Outlaw's Lament)' talks about the loneliness of being stuck in jail as the outlaw gets older with the girl far away, 'The New SF Bay Blues' shows the narrator hiking along the side of the road from a broken down van, symbolic of the breaking relationship that she's struggling with, and 'Forever Is Just A Day' is a song mourning lost connections, both in a one night stand and moments of euphoria with friends. And that's not counting Segarra's more politically-angled songs - the one that's gotten the most press attention is 'The Body Electric', almost an anti-murder ballad as a friend finds the dead girl and commits her revenge by viciously emasculating the man's dependence on violence and his insecurity, but there are other standouts too. St. Roch Blues paints a bloody picture of living in a neighborhood consumed by violence, and the title track goes into the uncomfortable family drama of a girl addicted to heroin thrown out by her father, and then goes the extra step to show her loneliness and his heartwrenching guilt as he knows his love would be taken advantage of if he were to let her come back. It's an emotionally complicated song, and they pull it off damn near brilliantly.

So what about themes? Honestly, it's a little hard to tell. Segarra has gone on record saying her material is earnest, striking against the common brand of disillusionment that crops up in all new generations - particularly ours - and yet she doesn't shy away with painting very lonely pictures and songs where it becomes hard not to get disillusioned. And this is probably what I like about the framing the most: she shows how seeking those good moments, those connections, how they can bring so much relief, and yet she's all too aware that they pass away or are hard to sustain against trying times and violence, and yet we have to keep trying all the same. Despite the darkness, despite the loneliness that is held by her small town heroes, they press on.

So yeah, I'm definitely happy I checked out this album, and while I can't say I love it - mostly courtesy of some production choices that prove a little exasperating and I think there are a couple moments that are a little too overdone - this is a damn solid album that's definitely worth your time. I'm thinking a strong 7/10 and a definite recommendation if you're into some stripped back, soulful, and truly intelligent country folk from the outskirts of the genre. I'm not quite sure it's as solid as 2012's Look Out Mama, but it's damn close, so check it out.

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