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The Past Is Still Alive is a vivid portrait of Hurray For The Riff Raff

"The Past Is Still Alive"

Release date: 23 February 2024
Hurray For The Riff Raff The Past Still Lives cover
23 February 2024, 11:10 Written by Liam Inscoe-Jones

Alynda Segarra is an outlaw, plain and simple.

It’s a mould many artists defer to but – as the music of Hurray for the Riff Raff betrays – Segarra lived it. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents; they were raised by their Aunt and Uncle until, at seventeen, they skipped town in the dead of night and spent the formative years of their live train-hopping across the continent, moving from squats to communes. With albums with names such as Small Town Heroes, it should be no surprise where Segarra’s allegiances lie, but their music has always done service to its causes; releasing eight records of increasingly colourful, tapestry-like indie rock, drawing from grassroots collectives like ACT UP, the Puerto Rican rock of the 70s and the poetry of Eileen Myles.

Segarra’s past records – particularly the Broadway-esque The Navigator – have been energetic and ambiguous in a way the most didactic “protest music” cannot be but, even still, The Past Is Still Alive is another step beyond, easily the project’s most potent to date. Mixed by Mike Moglis, the icon of Saddle Creek records who oversaw the classic, Nebraskan records of 2000s Bright Eyes and Phoebe Bridgers’ 2020 LP Punisher, the album is an astute, precisely drawn and deeply humane chronicle of everyday living, from the wide plains of Santa Fe to the heroin-strewn underbelly of NYC’s Lower East Side. There are plenty of broad social issues at play – a growing tide of fentanyl, worsening ecological collapse – but they arrive in the music as they tend to in our lives; not as all-consuming apocalypses but as fragmentary moments, scattered through friendships, shopping aisles and open roads.

This is Segarra’s ninth studio album, and there’s a sense that, by now, they’ve learned how to trim the fat completely. The Past Is Still Alive is an album of perpetual forward motion. Its characters are always on the move; peeing in the bushes waiting for the cops, jumping railroad tracks, firing up the car and taking the highway to Florida. The album’s flow repeats the same energy. The entire thing is just 36 minutes in length so vignettes are stacked tightly. Most of its eleven songs don’t even last three and a half minutes, but their imagery is so stark and contains such captivating, sticky melodies that they make the impression of songs twice their length.

It’s the strength of those songs which make the album. It isn’t revolutionary – the sound of the album is much the same palette as a Waxahatchee or Big Thief record – but what distinguishes Segarra’s songs is the vividness of their songwriting. They now seems capable of getting to the heart of a personality of a dynamic with just a single well-placed lyric, much like Springsteen could at the height of his powers. "Buffalo" explores time and memory through the lens of extinct the buffalo, driven off cliffs during America’s original sin, while the "Colossus of Roads" tackles a mass shooting which occurred at Colorado’s Club Q, but never through a predictable or rote point of view

Like all good Westerns, the album ends with an epic finale: the one-two punch of "The World Is Dangerous" and "Oglallala". The former is a duet with Conor Oberst, delivering a soft ballad of hope and fear over quivering slide guitar, fiddle and ragtime piano. “I’ve got to keep moving”, they sing, “It’s my life, I can’t lose it”. What that song achieves with restraint, the other matches with sheer, cataclysmic energy. Across the album, Segarra’s vocals are supple and restrained, until they’re not. The moment on "Colossus of Roads" where they sing “Tonight baby, oh tonight” is shiver-inducing, and they leave nothing on the table with "Ogallala", as sax blares and drums whip up a hurricane around them. The Past Is Still Alive is a remarkable album, one which achieves the impossible trick of capturing the mood of a nation and a vivid portrait of a single fascinating person – all within one gorgeous stew.

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