From the opening moments of Small Town Heroes, the latest collection from the New Orleans-based Hurray for the Riff Raff, it is a little too easy to dismiss Alynda Lee Segarra, the group's primary creative force and sometimes sole member, as a songwriter. The first song, "Blue Ridge Mountain," glides by on an effortless old-timey shuffle as Segarra sweetly croons a tune that feels like it could be 100 years old. She's such a gifted stylist and laid-back singer, able to agilely evoke American folk-blues traditions in the vein of similarly minded acts like Gillian Welch or Justin Townes Earle, that it almost seems like the songs don't have to be, or even shouldn't be, that good.
However, like both Welch and Earle, Segarra has an understated ability to revise and expand on what's come before, revising tunes like Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" or playing upon common country tropes like those in "Crash on the Highway" to forge her own particular take on the folk tradition. In fact, the most powerful composition here might be "The Body Electric," a song which cunningly alludes to Walt Whitman, the Greek myth of Philomela and the rich folk tradition of the Delia story as it makes a modern-day call for an end to violence against women.
What's likely to win over listeners the most, though, are the little things — the way Segarra holds tenderly onto the notes of the soulful "St. Roch Blues," or the lazy amble of the aching ballad "Good Time Blues (An Outlaw's Lament)" — moments that manage to be stunningly evocative without feeling the strain of hidebound purity. Coming on the heels of last year's all-covers LP My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, it also feels like the first fully-formed artistic statement from the young songwriter, an all-original set that's not afraid to plunge deep into the rich history of American folk music and carry it forward well into the 21st century.
Hurray for the Riff Raff opens for Shovels & Rope on March 4 at the Visulite Theatre.
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