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Hurray for the Riff Raff’s ‘The Navigator’ Is One of the Most Ambitious Song Cycles of the Year

Alynda Segarra’s would-be Off-Broadway play makes for a liberating Americana album instead. _________________________________ April 13, 2017 | by Angela Zimmerman

Hurray for the Riff Raff

The Navigator

ATO, 2017

Rating: A-

Hurray for the Riff Raff's sixth album, The Navigator, is a deeply satisfying fusion of Latin street music, Americana folk, and sultry ballads. It’s an old soul record spiked with frontwoman Alynda Segarra’s world-weary contempt and enthusiastic war cries. Even if you don't know much about the band and the New Orleans-by-way-of-the-Bronx force who drives it, The Navigator is undeniably cinematic, both in its incisive, character-driven focus and expansive scope of social and political commentary. There's a lot to hear here, but it's easy to unravel.

Segarra has scripted twelve songs and fashioned them together as though constructing a play; in fact, her original vision behind The Navigator was as an Off-Broadway performance. The album is told in two acts, with an “Entrance,” “Finale,” and even a “Halfway There” midpoint all helping propel a strong narrative current steeped in unifying human themes like segregation, dislocation, and gentrification. To this end, the singer dedicated the record “to the water protectors of Standing Rock… and to the people of Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, who are demanding an end to the AES dumping of coal ash which leads to water contamination.”

Hurray for the Riff Raff’s more Appalachia-infused previous efforts took a folk-revival turn on 2014's Small Town Heroes, the band's first on ATO, with fiddle taking center stage. The notable absence of fiddle player Yosi Perlstein on The Navigator has shifted the sound yet again, away from old-timey twang to a lush, more spacious production that samples from wider musical history, particularly Latin styles such as Cuban son and Puerto Rican bomba.

The Navigator is a powerfully thematic and masterful piece of storytelling, loosely based on Segarra’s own busking experiences and streetwise roots. The central character in the story is Navita Milagros Negrón, a Puerto Rican nomad whose journey through the disparate and far-flung locales of NYC reveals the gentrification (and ethnic resistance) of the city. The various layers and sonic flavors all color a terrain that’s intrinsically familiar but also unsettled and new. As Segarra told The New York Times, “I learned I could create a character, the Navigator, who would stand at the intersection of all these identities and weave in and out."

The resulting record is endlessly interesting and endlessly listenable, offering an experience that is most rewarding through headphones yet effortlessly compelling enough to serve as a soundtrack to dinner, or a road trip, for both provocative and evocative reasons. There's the doo-wop opener (1970s New York tribute “Living in the City”), a smattering of husky, Fiona Apple-esque ballads (“Nothing Going to Change That Girl,” “Fourteen Floors”); and penultimate track “Pa'lante,” a spare, smoldering, call-to-action whose title means “forward.”

Inspired by Puerto Rican nationalist group the Young Lords, “Pa’lante” is a piano-led lament with a “Day in the Life”-styled interlude and the album’s most overtly political lyrics: “Colonized, and hypnotized, be something / Sterilized, dehumanized, be something / Well take your pay / And stay out the way, be something / Ah do your best / But fuck the rest, be something.” With a mid-song sampling of the 1969 Pedro Pietri poem "Puerto Rican Obituary," Segarra's point-of-view is clear. By crisscrossing an urban intersection of her own musical and ethnic heritage, she's taken to the past to deliver a message more relevant and urgent today than ever. As the tune’s thundering chorus closes out The Navigator, Segarra's message is clear: Come Forward. Go Forward. March Forward.

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