Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes

Small Town HeroesSmall Town Heroes is the newest album from American band Hurray for the Riff Raff. It’s a labour of love, and a labour of love lost. It’s also a mixture of plunging reels and riffs, quiet sadness and the problematical deaths and little deaths that accompany us through life; things we must jettison in order to keep going.

The parts of Small Town Heroes that are least compelling are the parts that come least directly from Alynda Lee Segarra; Riff Raff’s singer and songwriter. The first half of the album’s given to more thematically bluegrass material; outlaws, firearms, drinking, playing guitar and John Henry’s hands, all washed over with riding and galloping banjo’s and strings. By far the most haunting songs on the album are the love songs – a more accurate description would be to call them longing songs. This is particularly the case with “St. Roch Blues” and “Levon’s Dream”, in which Segarra makes an ironic case for sorrow being the subject she’s most suited to.

On first listen, what’s most striking is how subtle the songs are. Paradoxically, Segarra barely insists on pain being known, as much as anyone who produces an album about pain can. Actually this makes the material more affecting is how casually happy the first half of Small Town Heroes is, because you realise how broken Seggara must be to sound like this. “St. Roch Blues” is like watching a friend drunkenly try to smile whilst crying. There’s a savage cruelty to see justice in the heartbreak of a person who’s looked at the world and found its purpose in fun. The triumph of Riff Raff is that by not insisting on your sympathy, they encourage you to be a little bit more forgiving of failure.

In “Levon’s Dream” they delicately pick their way through the shattered sadness of heartbreak into the unknown country beyond. Seggara doesn’t blame her lover, but instead manages a few beautiful words and wonders at all that might have been. She’s talked in interviews about regretting how much pain she caused her aunt and uncle by running away at 17 to hop trains. This sensitivity to pain runs throughout “Levon’s Dream”. Unfortunately, the country beyond is less compelling; more general comparative to the singular beauty of her doomed madrigals to the birds.

This isn’t necessarily surprising given the sudden accessibility of pain that follows heartbreak. The album works best when avoiding lines like “take me down the line” (folk music’s equivalent of “take me down town”). Such lines have been sung so many times they don’t need to be repeated. Similarly, to jauntily sing “love is just a game, we foolishly play” on “I Know It’s Wrong”, directly after “Levon’s Dream”, doesn’t sit well. We know it isn’t foolish, and when it’s the only game there is, what are you supposed to do? There’s no escaping heartbreak by painting it as a clown. As a line it would only work if sung aware of its tragedy. It’s the one song on Small Town Heroes that should be a ballad but isn’t.

The analysis of heartbreak leads to contemplation about “romantic suitability”. It’s easy to lose sympathy, but Segarra never does that. If she were a younger songwriter, you’d be inclined to suggest this triumph was luck, but it’s not in this case. She’s managed to write an album of heartbreak, rather than singing about a broken heart. She sings far more originally about heartbreak than dancing in barns because pain is much harder to share than dancing. The use of sorrow? More sorrow, and in this case a very beautiful yet sad album.

Release: 31st March 2014, ATO Records

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  1. Hurray for the Riff Raff - Small Town Heroes » DrunkenWerewolf - 31/03/2014

    […] totally impressed were we by Small Town Heroes, that in his recent review our writer Andrew Wiles called it “a very beautiful yet sad album” capable of a “savage […]

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