23 Mar 2024

Review: The Past is Still Alive by Hurray For the Riff Raff

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 23 March 2024
Alynda Segarra

Photo: Bandcamp

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Alynda Segarra hails from the Bronx, New York, but makes music that sounds like the open plains of the South. Their work under the name Hurray For the Riff Raff has been going since 2007, hewing a path that blends country twang with affection for the underclass alluded to in their pseudonym, with each release getting bolder and more beguiling.

Which brings us to their latest album, The Past is Still Alive, a collection where every song feels like an anthem, navigating topics like persecution and loss while staying thoroughly uplifting.

This is, aside from anything, very pleasant folk-inflected music. But lyrics like “track marks poking through your hoodie sleeve” in ‘Alibi’ point to Segarra’s darker thematic concerns, and this album finds them reflecting on their past, including teenage years spent as a runaway hopping freight trains. 

Their previous few albums found them embracing their Puerto Rican heritage, and leaning into synths and electronic elements, but this one is back to basics in some ways, less concerned with flourish than just writing good songs.

An early highlight is ‘Buffalo’, slightly goofy in the way it amiably lopes along, melodies ready and willing to get stuck in your head. It's a great example of tweaking already catchy lines as a song progresses, and a band responding to their singer’s words and delivery.

There are lyrics about “running wild and running free”, and one saying “we drove out to the desert just to leave the world behind”. On ‘Vetiver’, a song named after a type of grass, they sing about returning to the rocks and stones. Another line refers to their transient past: “She broke my heart, but at least I got a shower in/ I don't regret it for she didn't want to go traveling.”

In a recent Vogue profile of Segarra, they highlight the lyric “most of our old friends are dead, so test your drugs, remember Narcan.” Narcan is an opioid blocker, which can be used to restore breathing after an overdose. The piece points out that Hurray For the Riff Raff will have free Narcan at all of their upcoming shows.

The Past is Still Alive makes its concerns clear in its title, and appropriately ends with two unbeatable ballads, the first of which has an equally apt name: it’s called ‘The World is Dangerous’.

Segarra sings “everything is crumbling” there, and as these final songs get more tender musically, they dial up the nihilism. The final proper track, (before the album ends with some phone messages from their late father), is called ‘Ogallala’, after a town in Nebraska, and features this choice phrase: 

“I used to think I was born into the wrong generation, but now I know I made it right on time to watch the world burn”. They save it from total misanthropy with the next line “with a tear in my eye”.

It’s sad, and celebratory, a paean for the planet, or maybe the past.