Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, New Tunes

AOTM: ‘Life on Earth’ by Hurray for the Riff Raff

This is actually the 2nd time that I’ve introduced the This is Not Happening family to Hurray for the Riff Raff. In 2017, I chose ‘Pa’lante’ as my track of the year, and wow what a track that is. Check it and the stunning video out here. Since its release, this track has become an Anthem for Puerto Ricans the world over. The album that it came from, ‘The Navigator’, received significant critical acclaim and attention and announced Alynda Mariposa Segarra to a much wider audience than they had previously.

But let’s pause a second to understand how Hurray for the Riff Raff got to this point. Whilst I don’t want to get caught into a detailed history of their life, the backstory is important to understand them and this album. Alynda grew up in the Bronx, estranged from her birth parents she grew up with her aunt and uncle in a 14th floor, claustrophobic flat. She has Puerto Rican heritage which we’ll come back to shortly as this is another touchpoint in understanding them as an artist. Alynda has spoken openly about her teenage realisation of how small she is (5ft 2) and how little space she took up in the world. She reflects on finding the punk scene, the music, the clothes, the hair and the make up and wearing them as a kind of armour to protect her from the realities of her life in New York. At age 17 Alynda ran away from home.

Alynda found like-minded ‘run-away-kids’ as she describes them, on the road whilst travelling the length and breadth of the country riding freight trains. This is a time that in some interviews she makes sound like an amazingly poetic bohemian existence and in others, a dangerous time where survival was the most important daily task. It was at this time that they started to play in bands, learn instruments and write music.

Alynda finally settled in New Orleans and started to record self released music in 2007. The genre of this music is best described using the catchall of ‘Americana’ – fusing traditional American folk with notes of protest, punk and more traditional blue grass instrumentation and style. Their first label-released album was in 2011 with 3 others following between then and 2014. Alynda speaks of a dissatisfaction with the lack of representation of her Nu Rican heritage in her music which perhaps explains the 3 year gap before the release of the Navigator. And we’re back to where we started. The Navigator is a proper rock album, a love letter to her New York experience and the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Despite the critical acclaim and attention, there has been a 5 year gap between the Navigator and the AOTM ‘Life on Earth’. That 5 years is demonstrated in a not-insignificant shift in the sound of this new album. This is also their first release on Nonesuch Records. It feels like the album sounds as it does, at least partly due to the relationship between Alynda and the producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, War on Drugs, Sharon Van Etten and many more). This partnership works. Alynda has spoken in interviews about the encouragement that they received from Brad to explore and to release previously held beliefs about what they were as an artists. If you fancy reading a little more about Mr. Cook this Pitchfork interview is a good read ‘Is Brad Cook your favourite indie band’s secret weapon?’ The production is both low-fi / low-key but also feels very polished at the same time. Alynda’s voice sounds amazing on every track, as much to do with her incredible voice but still, it has been recorded beautifully.

In a podcast that I will link later in this write-up, the podcast host uses a lovely turn of phrase ‘I hear the energy of … in this album’. This is a phrase I will shamelessly steal (now and undoubtedly in the future too). I think it’s a lovely way of saying ‘I can hear the energy of these artists without the any single track, or the album as a whole, ever sounding exactly like them’. For me, I hear the energy of 70’s New York, Lou Reed, U.S. Girls, Patti Smith, Blondie, Stevie Nicks, Arcade Fire, Japanese Breakfast, Violent Femmes.

So what is this album? It’s a ‘tight as a drum’ 11 tracks, 40 mins of fiendishly catchy, guitar driven (but richly instrumented) 3-4 minute tracks. There is some seriously radio friendly vibes on this album but its SO not a sell out pop album. This is a pandemic album, I am not sure if it fits the ‘lockdown’ album tag, but i think it speaks strongly to the paranoia and claustrophobia of the last 2 years. The lyrical themes are world weary, often dark, rarely truly uplifting except for the album closing ‘Saga’ which while it is uplifting its about choosing to thrive rather than simply survive. To sing so beautifully about such dark themes in a pop song reminds me of U.S. Girls and Japanese Breakfast at their best. The thrive vs. survive motif really reminds of the sentiment of last years ‘Jubilee’ by Japanese Breakfast and I am very happy about this.

Alynda describes this album’s sound as ‘Nature Punk’. And I think I get that. It has a lot of natural, acoustic sounds. There are a few synths providing atmospheric drone to a number of tracks but otherwise this is an album of acoustic guitars, pianos, simple drum kits, all sorts of percussion and even woodwind and some lovely horns popping up here and there. The result, overall, is that this is a very percussive album. One of the reasons I described their backstory is because I can hear the rhythm of the freight train living in many of these tracks. That chug, chug sound of the tracks can be found on some tracks in an acoustic guitar and in others the percussive use of the piano. The street performing run-away-kid-band background can be heard in the really simple kick drum and snare drumming … I don’t think there is a single cymbal on the whole album?

In terms of standout tracks … well there’s not a weak track on the album. No, they’re not all radio friendly indie bangers. There are beat-less, self reflective tracks that break up the ‘poppier’ tracks. But ‘Pierced Arrows’ is the obvious stand out single …

… but ‘Pointed at the Sun’, ‘Rhododendron’ and ‘Saga’ are not far behind in terms of radio-friendly memorability. ‘Rhododendron’ is my favourite track but I also love ‘Precious Cargo’ which explores the migrant / refugee experience and what awaits them when they arrive in the US.

I think this album is so accessible. It’s so easy to listen to and easy to consume multiple times in one sitting. There are of course layers, really engaging with the lyrics helps to open a new layer to the album. However, as always, learning more about the artist helps you to really get into the layers that lie below. With this mind, and because I am more of a listener than a reader, I am linking a few podcasts below that if you’re that way inclined, will help you to get even more out of this album.

I hope you enjoy the album as much as I am enjoying it. If this isn’t in my 2022 top 10 then it will have been a great year of music. But I suspect this will be right up there, it feels like it’s been hand crafted just for me.

Some things to listen to;

The following is a straight up, great chat between 2 guys about this album, it’s an interesting take on the record – Blind Tiger Record Club Podcast

This is an interesting interview with Alynda recorded in March this year, following the launch of the album – Launch Left Podcast

This one is a great listen, recorded back in May 2020, this is an interview on Radio Menea, a podcast about music from Latinx artists. The conversation covers a lot of background from Alynda’s life that sets the scene for the conversation on the Navigator but there are nods to the music that we hear now on Life on Earth – Radio Menea Podcast

Now this one is a little different. This is an interview with Alynda from a podcast called Living in This Queer Body that is described as ‘a podcast about barriers to embodiment and how our collective body stories can be bring us back to ourselves’. It’s not a straight up and down chat about music, it’s a spiritual discussion about the human condition … I found this one to be the most revealing in understanding Alynda as a human and an artist – Living in This Queer Body Podcast

5 thoughts on “AOTM: ‘Life on Earth’ by Hurray for the Riff Raff

  1. Thanks for a fantastic write-up, Joey. I wish I’d had time to listen to some of the links you’ve posted, will try and dip into some of that this week if I had find the time.

    So where am I with this album? Well, I think I love it, but I have a couple of niggles. It’s certainly tight as a drum, which I really appreciate. It’s both an easy listen and a rewarding one, and as our resident Pop Being™, I’m bowled over by the number of hooks. Hooks for breakfast, hooks for lunch, hooks for dinner! What a collection of pop songs (and I do think they are pop songs, and I mean that as a compliment).

    I’ve also listened to it a LOT. I’ve had it repeat for a great deal of the last month, and it’s been enjoyable teasing out all the different ground she covers. Bat For Lashes leftfield synth pop on opener WOLVES and NIGHTQUEEN, 80s Fleetwood Mac on PIERCED ARROWS, Springsteen indie on POINTED AT THE SUN, catchy AF folk pop on RHODODENDRON, gorgeous country torch song on LIFE ON EARTH (an album highlight), New Pornographers/Arcade Fire indie pomp on SAGA. It’s a potted history of alternative pop music of the last 20-30 years, and it’s delivered with incredible confidence by a singer with a great voice and a fantastic ear for lyrics.

    You’re waiting for a but though, right? Well here it comes. Is it a bit TOO polished? And is that where Brad Cook comes in, because the production is so good and crisp, but it’s also quite safe – lots of swaves of synths and horns, lots of things to beef up the songs. I wasn’t that familiar with her earlier work, but having had a listen, it is notable that this is definitely her most polished work. That’s not say she’s lost her voice – that comes through loud and clear, especially lyrically. For me, the songs that stand out the most are the ones that feel the most original and the less like musical homages. RHODODENRON is one of my songs of the year – what a tune, and what great lyrics. And as you mention, PRECIOUS CARGO is a real standout because it doesn’t actually sound like anything else I can think of, and that’s not necessarily true of all of this album.

    Having said all of that, every time I listen, and in almost every song, there comes a moment of liftoff that is really enjoyable. She has great song craft and every song goes on a journey. It’s impressive as hell. Will I still be listening to this in a year or two? I think I will be, for sure. But do I wonder if she’s just lost a bit of edge in the making of this record? Just maybe. She might call herself ‘Nature Punk’, but I’m not quite feeling the punk part of that, except perhaps in her attitude.

    Interestingly, it’s gone down v well both with Caroline and with Astrid (who’s now 17). So it’s certainly speaking to the women and girls in my life. And It’s speaking to me to, for sure, and I have almost nothing but positive things to say about. I guess when you add a little sheen to the finish, you’re always gonna lose a little edge, but maybe that’s fine. A great pick anyway, Joey, and looking forward to discussing it.

  2. I have approached this album a bit different than others in the fact that I have only read Joey’s write up yesterday and have had very little time to really explore more about the artist. With that said, I think it was the best way to approach this album, completely blind which I’ll get into later.

    This old adage of not judging a book by its cover does come into play. The person that you see on the front cover isn’t the person that comes through your speaks. I love this.

    I love this album, it quickly ticked all the right boxes for me. It’s super approachable with enough of an edge to keep you interested. Alynda Segarra is such a force on this album, and as both Joey and David have highlighted, the album super tight!

    Outside of this album I have had two moments within my current non stop life to delve a bit deep into who Alynda is, though it was top line. In one of the articles that I read, Alynda talked about how some of these songs scared the life out of her and it was Brad Cook pushing her that created the confidence of this album. This blows my mind. The first thought I had after my first end to end listen was the confidence in the vocals. She really owns this album vocally. There are elements is Annie Lennox in Alynda vocals; and Annie Lennox owns the life out of whatever she sings on…. As does Alynda Segarra throughout this album.

    Joey mentioned on the Big Thief podcast that he tended to best get along with a Americana Folk Indie like songs throughout their album. This album is exactly that. Understanding David’s point that it’s polished, I’m fine with that. I actually think that the polished element allows this album to go to the next level, beyond Americana to widespread genre hopping goodness. ‘Rosemary Tears’ (which may be my favourite track on the album) wouldn’t get to where it is without being tight and polished. Seriously, is there anything better than layered vocal done properly? I LOVE them when done right!

    This feeds into my second, though limited discovery into Hurray For the Riff Raff. I asked Alexa to play music by the band. It wasn’t what I expected. It was less polished, more americana folk, and emphasised the journey she has taken to arrive at Life On Earth. After reading Joey’s write up I love her journey, and her getting to this place of this album. I need to spend some more time finding out about her before we record the podcast.

    This album is feel good, it makes you sing along, my daughter can’t get enough of it, my wife likes it as well, I even caught my tool cool for school 11 year old son humming turning it up in the car on the way to football last week. There is something for everyone on this album and the curation and pace is spot in.

    You have set the bar high with this one Joey!

  3. Great write up Joey, and sorry it’s taken me time to respond here. I’m going to use two weekends away, which both bookended me getting Covid for my less than sharp actions. Thanks again for bringing this to us. I feel embarrassed that I can’t recall your previous shout for track of the year.

    So, this is a fascinating album, one which seems to have a very Weather Station arc for me:

    Never heard of them. Check.
    First listen: beautiful, accessible, interesting. Check.
    Repeated listens: very pleasant, musically excellent, but just not connecting. Check.
    BUT WHY. Check.
    Go for a walk with the album, no distractions. The penny drops. Check.
    Why didn’t I do that earlier? Check.

    The good news is it’s not pod time yet, so I’m hopeful of not having to re-edit my harshest words when the scales fall from my eyes before we release it but after I’ve got any time to retract things. But – and there is a but – here I’m still not sure I’ll from liking this and respecting it to really *loving* it.

    It’s confusing because so much of this is what I like. And as others have said there’s a lot of parallels with artists I love – and I’ll throw in some Chrissie Hynde energy too – but I haven’t gone that final step. So many standout tracks, from Pierced Arrows to Jupiter’s Dance, or Saga (with its ‘roll credits’ perfection) and of course the big entry point: Rhododendron. An absolute smack in the face of a great record. I can listen to this many times, and I often have the songs revolving around my head, so what’s going on?

    It’s not like the artist isn’t easy to connect with. Their backstory, their character, their worldview, are all in tune with who I am. And having listened to the Blind Tiger pod and also read a few pieces as well as reviews, it’s clear there’s such a bond between artist and lived experience, and principles, morals and this is core to their music. But…. but… but…. it hasn’t quite blown me away.

    And I have a theory that probably isn’t a surprise, not least to David. Is this album, *too polished*? I have read a bit about Brad Cook and listening to the album you can see his skills at work. It’s sonically almost *too good*. Everything is placed where it needs to be, and as a change in direction from her previous albums its surely going to get her into much wider circles and public consciousness. And musically there is no filler. When Saga kicks in and you hear glockenspiel it is *just* what you think you need at that point. Jupiter’s Dance, with its synth-led lightness is a great shift when you think you know what’s coming next. And Precious Cargo’s heartbreak over dreamy pads. Or the injection of New Orleans street brass into Rosemary Tears. It all feels like it slots into place just so easily. But on repeat listens when I seek connection between the lyrics, music and myself, I start to feel things are almost a little too honed down, perhaps. Those edges, the looseness that I often love (but not always, Joe Mount) seem missing to me. And having dipped briefly into The Navigator, I feel that even more.

    Wolves’ 80s snare and percs, just feel a bit overdone after a few listens. Pierced Arrows is anthemic, but at the moment you sort of want it to just completely lose itself, it feels almost a bit restrained. And this isn’t Segarra’s vocals, which are AWESOME all album, but perhaps the arrangements around them. The vocals go big, but I sometimes feel there’s an almost ‘perfect indie’ sound to this that doesn’t quite fit the looseness, the vibrancy of the vocals or the artist. When i listen to it I find myself loving the singing, but the pain, the heartbreak and emotion doesn’t seem matched by the arrangements and melodies. They are amazing hooks, but are they dulling the emotional power and impact? Jupiter’s Dance’s blocky percs and chords are so clean and shiny that the only outlier feels like an electronic ‘triangle’ sound. nightqueen’s percs are similar, even if they’re submerged underwater. And the talk of ‘no cymbals’… by the end I’m crying out for one, just one! It’s like the music – not the melodies, as they are Segarra’s, at its heart, but the way the layers are built – just feel like they lose their lustre as I become closer to the lyrics and artist as I listen. The cynic in me feels that Cook’s done this so many times, so well, that it doesn’t quite match with the subject matter or *vibe*. Which seems illogical because, isn’t this about the artist going with what is making them happy and excited? I am not the artist. It could well be perfect and it’s just sailing me by. I don’t know.

    Now, there’s a BIG caveat here, because things could change in the next week. But they may not, and this is about how I feel right now, so here we are.

    At the moment it’s a 7.5/10 – a really good album – but I really want it to be an * or even 9. I just don’t quite know how I navigate this block.

  4. Nice write up guys. I’ll distill these thoughts and set some questions for us to talk about on the pod. Obviously the production of the album will be the main discussion point but I’d also like to talk about (1) how artists channel the energy of others without sounding like them (2) how perfect is the sequencing of tracks on this album (3) when an artist goes through such a transformation … what do you want from them next?

    1. Some good questions indeed brother @misterstory. I am still really enjoying this album, but – perhaps as we’ll talk about in a bit – I have connected much more with The Navigator in the past week. #thefeels

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