Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 2 - Hurray for the Riff Raff's The Navigator

From my teens forward, there's a couple of strange things that used to happen to me regularly. People that knew me would regularly tell me, out of the blue, how if I went to New York, I probably wouldn't leave. Also, people that didn't know me would routinely think I was from New York. It took until my mid twenties when I finally went to New York and not only did I understand why this happened, but a third thing happened while I was there - I kept getting mistaken for a local and asked for directions as if I had a clue. I mention this because I feel a strong connection to that city and particularly to music that has a certain New York feel and I can't think of an album in recent memory that better captures that than Hurray for the Riff Raff's The Navigator. And that's just one of the many aspects that makes this album not just great, but truly special, engaging and moving. It's the most complete work of art I've experienced in a very long time.

the navigator

The main creative force behind Hurray for the Riff Raff is Alynda Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in New York. At 17, she jumped a freight train out of town and crossed the country several times before ending up in New Orleans. Her career so far has been heavily in traditional "Americana" so it's appropriate that this album properly places Puerto Rican influence on the culture in that context. This is perhaps the most political album to come out this year and it happened before hurricanes and the blatantly racist neglect of responsibility by the current administration ravaged the island. Segarra has been politically and socially outspoken her whole career, but this is by far her most pressing and immediate commentary. The fact that it's wrapped in such a beautifully crafted work of art makes this timeless and breathlessly moving.

Years ago I watched a documentary on the history of Rock n Roll in which Iggy Pop talks about how he came up with the iconic sound of The Stooges. He talked about walking down the streets of the industrial parts of Detroit and hearing the loud crashing of the factory presses at the car manufacturing plants and then imitates the sound. Hearing that interview and then playing The Stooges' Funhouse album, it's crystal clear how that sound is there in every aspect of the record. It completely catptures the feel of that time and place in the sound of the snare and the guitars, but also in the recording technique and explosive aggression of his vocals. Throughout The Navigator, the same thing happens, creating a sonic painting of urban life that is very specific to New York City. Whether it's the echoes of a subway station in the doo wop opener "Entrance" or the metallic grinding of synths and guitars that could be the sound of the train itself or traffic on the street on tracks like "Hungry Ghost" these details pull you into the world of this concept album's main character, Navita as she journeys through the city, discovering her identity.

It's almost a disservice to break this album down into it's parts. The songs are all amazing, with stellar production and poignant lyrics. Segarra's voice has a very particular feel to it that makes you want to listen to what she has to say. It has a velvety flow and vibrato, but behind it is a passionate assertiveness that gives her words impact beyond the literal. There are certainly some standout songs. The first proper song after the "Entrance" theme, "Living in the City," has a Velvet Underground feel that comes across as authentic rather than simple imitation. Another favorite is "Settle" which is perhaps the most subtle version of using the production style and the instruments to create the sounds of the city on the album. It's slightly over-modulated at times while gliding along with a soft melody on strings. It's a beautifully balanced song. And, then of course, there's "Pa'lante" which honestly chokes me up every single time I hear it.

The Navigator's story is presented in true New York City style, as a musical. The album's liner notes are presented in a Playbill and the cover features a very stage-like set of what we might think of us NYC with fire escapes and steam coming up out of the sewers. But the album's themes chip away at this facade while diving into the truths behind what makes New York and by extension, "the American Dream" so romantic. It's the story of immigrants and outsiders, struggling against oppression of all kinds to establish an identity and "be something" as the climactic, empowering and moving "Pa'lante" affirms. The New York City of The Navigator is at once real and imaginary. It's the great city that was built by these immigrants and outsiders, but now it's been occupied, gentrified and appropriated, the original inhabitants pushed aside. The journey taken in the album is a search for true identity, both the protagonist's and the city's.

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