One of the goals of Hurray for the Riff Raff's lead singer Alynda Segarra is remaking folk music for the politics and desires of the current age. She takes both the ancient history of folk, and its revivals in the 1930s and 1960s, and updates it for current ideas of gender and sexuality.
Their last album, Small Town Heroes, featured a haunting — "The Body Electric" was a murder ballad told from the point of view of the murdered woman — and thought there's nothing quite as literally supernatural here, ghosts continue to linger here on The Navigator: there's a song about falling in lust with both the city and the sex that happens there; a drinking song, and a break-up song, about ambivalence and desire.
These are not new themes, but Segarra's songs are a complex thicket of emotions, made traversable by her ability to craft a maxim, a hook and a bridge to a chorus. If the last album was about her role as a woman, this album talks about her Puerto Rican heritage. Both are filled with stories of literal and metaphorical travelling. See the horns and chorus, for example, that ends "Nothing Will Change the Girl," as Segarra's light voice flies through them, or the Spanish introduction to title track "The Navigator," which swings into Puerto Rican guitars, moving between the streets of her native Bronx and her homeland.
These tracks insistently ask questions like "Where will all my people go?" or "Where will all my people live?" even though the answers remain unclear. This theme continues on the gorgeous and angry "Rican Beach," on which Segarra lists the things that were stolen by colonists as she argues, in her open-throated voice, that "you can take my life, but you cannot take my home" against traditional drums. She argues for a pan-Latinx resistance (and outside of that demographic, as well; she references Emmett Till) against centuries of Western European oppression. It is a heavy record, moving forward no matter how difficult that can be.
Her story of struggling against great odds is not only told via lyrics, but through other voices (including the inclusion of radical political speeches) and complex instrumentation — especially the excellent keyboard work of Casey Wayne McAllister and the percussive finale, which outlines the difference between demonstration, parade and march.
The Navigator espouses the notion that protest music can modernize and be both inclusive and respectful of history. It is both a pleasure to listen to and a rallying cry to rise up. (ATO Records)