Back in August of last year I did a short write up on the band Hurray For The Riff Raff. I had stumbled upon a release that combined some of their earlier EP’s into one full-length record and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Because it was really more of a compilation, there were definitely parts that seemed disjointed but it was all the same style and fit together sonically. At that time they were still well under the radar, with no one really talking about their music other than lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra’s work on the HBO series “Treme.” Now, with the title-track/lead single making it’s way around radio and blogs, Look Out Mama is looking to be a big hit for the band I said “catches the essence of America so brilliantly.”
This new record is a complete departure from their previous efforts. Everything is much more wide open and free. Segarra’s voice is more confident, and the band seems willing to take chances that they wouldn’t have before. It’s a much more uptempo record than I expected, and I credit a lot of that to producer Andrija Tokic. Tokic has received wide acclaim for the Alabama Shakes album that recently set the world on fire. Hurray For The Riff Raff heard what Alabama Shakes were doing and wanted that kind of soulful rock sound, and they seem to have nailed it with Look Out Mama.
Based on the single, a lot of people have been comparing HFTRR to The Band. Obviously at this point in time every group is being compared to The Band due to Levon Helm’s recent death (also if you’re playing a show, chances are you’ll be covering “The Weight” or “Up On Cripple Creek” which is very kind, but unnecessary). So, while I hear what everyone else hears and find that the comparison is fair, I try to avoid making that statement. Instead I would say that they’ve found a way to blend country and traditional folk with sould and rock in a way that feels familiar and new at the same time. One of their biggest strengths is that they know how to restrain themselves before things get too crazy, which allows the listener to get comfortable with them and enjoy the songs.
Right off the bat with “Little Black Star” you get the idea that HFTRR has really thought about what kind of music they want to make. It’s a sunny porch-stomper that’s heavy on violin and harmonies. Segarra’s voice guides the whole thing, as it does for most of the album, and she plays to her strengths allowing the music to do the heavy lifting behind her. She has a solid voice and she knows how to use it effectively. Drummer Yosi Pearlstein also deserves a lot of credit (also serving as violinist) for creating a percussion-filled background first with handclaps and adding the drum kit deeper into the song.
It’s almost impossible for me to choose a favorite from this ten song collection, but I think I really like “Riley.” It’s completely different from anything else I’ve heard HFTRR do before. There are some psychadaelic moments, some fuzzy guitar freakouts, and an overall feeling of dread. I would imagine that the live version of this song could go on forever-almost like Wilco’s “At Least That’s What You Said” (of course I’m not saying it’s as good as anything Wilco has done, but that’s what it reminds me of). I really like that they give the guitar it’s due, as it spends the majority of the record buried.
I also really like the song “Born To Win (part one)” because of its optimism. It’s one of those songs that you just sing along with no matter what, and it bonds people who are singing it together. “Well you can’t keep us down/all you billy club clowns/because we don’t speak your language.” Hearing those words and then seeing images of police in riot gear forcing back peaceful protesters in New York City really makes me think that we need more music like this. It isn’t necessarily a protest song, but I could hear its message ringing in the hearts of those who have been standing outside at Occupy rallies for the past year.
Hurray For The Riff Raff have, in a very short time, completely changed my perception of them as a band. Traditional folk music still coarses through their veins, but they’ve opened themselves up to a whole new approach. I applaud the new approach and hope that a lot more people take notice and listen to the music they’re making. You can start today by heading over to Spinner and listening to the whole album for free.