When you think of American folk music (or the slightly kitsch and reductive term "Americana"), where does your mind go? Wide open prairies? A home on the range? A southern twang? You probably don't think of a high rise apartment building in the Bronx, but that's precisely where Alynda Segarra takes you on her bold and ambitious sixth album as frontwoman for Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Raised in the Bronx, but now based in New Orleans, The Navigator feels like Segarra's contribution to the quilt of American mythology. Throughout, Hurray for the Riff Raff continue to expand on their folk- and country-influenced sound, and use it to build a bridge between the choral sea shanty that opens the album on "Entrance," and the furious bomba percussion and call-and-response vocals of closer "Finale" that draws on Segarra's Puerto Rican heritage.
The star of this concept album - a young woman named Navita Milagros Negron - is ushered onstage in the Shakespearean manner; In fair South Bronx where we lay our scene... "Fourteen floors of living, and fourteen floors of dying." Following the striking introduction, "Living in the City" finds Segarra's deep, textured, quivering voice guiding her band through a folk-rock barnstormer complete with an electrifying guitar solo. "Hungry Ghost" follows suit, with a driving backbeat thrashing against Segarra's emotional delivery.
The songs on this record don't necessarily tell a traditional narrative, but Hurray for the Riff Raff musically and lyrically evoke a character looking for belonging. In the way they transform country and folk music, doo-wop, soul, and gospel, and Latin American styles, they evoke the immigrant experience, the "melting pot." The character that Segarra inhabits is displaced and searching for identity while she is beset by competing forces that sway her this way and that.
The romantic and lush reverie "Nothing's Gonna Change that Girl" starts off as a gentle, string-laced acoustic reverie before evolving into a gorgeous and oceanic piece marked by rhythmic backing vocals and tumbling percussion. Following through, the title track is a work of dusky, tropical noir, the Buena Vista Social Club gone electric. These moments are triumphant and exciting not just because they explore sounds often relegated to the "world music" niche, but because Segarra and her band make the switch so effortlessly and with such conviction that every move they make feels completely organic without pretence.
"Where will all my people go? The navigator wants to know," Segarra sings as she raises her voice to an anguished soprano. Here is where the album's second act begins; From the resigned and spare "Halfway There" onwards, the displacement of Navita and her people is framed in far more certain terms. The dark groove of the single "Rican Beach" doubles the bitterness of the delivery of lines like "Now all the politicans, they just squawk their mouths. They say 'We'll build a wall to keep them out.'" Segarra draws parallels between the dark and complex colonial past of North and Central America, and the places where it may soon be headed.
"Fourteen Floors" turns the home that Segarra sang of in "Living in the City" into a fruitless Tower of Babel, and "Settle" incisively and with sharp irony picks at the uses of its titular word. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though, and it is the transcendent "Pa'lante." Named for the slogan of the Puerto Rican nationalist group Young Lords - meaning "forward" - the suite-like track is the first time on the record that Segarra sings in Spanish. It is a message of resistance and fearlessness in which Segarra howls the title at the glorious crescendo on behalf of everyone, from her mother and father, to the murdered Emmett Till.
"Pa'lante" is so life affirming and all-encompassing that when the record ends shortly after, it seems out of necessity. The Navigator is not a long album, but within the many different strands of music that Hurray for the Riff Raff weave together so elegantly, there are lifetimes worth of stories. Uncertainty, fear and strife permeate it, but from the very beginning it is also guided by a spirited tenacity and love of life. Hurray for the Riff Raff have given us a timely reminder, that no matter what happens: Pa'lante!
The Navigator is out now on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.