Hurray for the Riff Raff

Hurray For The Riff Raff -The Past Is Still Alive (Nonesuch)

I love Hurray For The Riff Raff. They’re probably one of the most interesting bands of the past 25 years. It might not be patently obvious on the surface, but delve deeper and you’ll see what I mean. There’s always a story. The Past Is Still Alive is a case in point. At face value, it’s a pleasant, toe-tapping slice of romantic Americana, yet its roots are in deeper, sometimes darker places.

A key event that shaped the record was that chief songwriter and vocalist Alynda Segarra lost their father just one month before starting work on it. We hear a voicemail recording of his voice at the very end of The Past Is Still Alive, though it’s a cheerful, happy memory that we bear witness to, rather than a sombre one.

While Segarra undoubtedly pays tribute to their father several times during the 40 or so minutes that span these 11 songs, there are also wistful nods back to other folk they met in the past and who shaped their journey into the individual that they are now. Taking centre stage in this respect is a transgender woman called Miss Jonathan, whom Segarra met many years ago and does not know whether she is still alive or not. “And you’ll never know the way I miss Miss Jonathan,” Segarra sings on ‘Hawkmoon‘, before informing us, tragically, that “She was beaten in the street and then I never saw her again.”

Even better is ‘Snake Plant (The Past Is Still Alive)‘, its gentle thrum the perfect foil for Segarra’s quite charming lyrics: “They don’t even really know my name / I’m so happy that we escaped from where we came.” It’s the way Segarra makes the words sing rhythmically that is one of the key aspects to what makes Hurray For The Riff Raff so great.

Buffalo‘ is possibly the most commercially viable thing here, with its minimalist but infectious, oft-repeated “Two weeks just to catch the buffalo” refrain, though most of The Past Is Still Alive makes a mockery of any preconceptions that a song needs a chorus to be effective. Not many here have one, yet it feels like you’re being gently stroked on the back by a lover while lying on a deserted beach on a glorious sunny day for the most part.

I still love you. I still love you” Segarra sings with unwavering emotion on the sweet ‘The World Is Dangerous‘, and while their father is undoubtedly at least partly in mind here, it seems pretty clear that this is a tribute to anyone, anywhere, whoever made a positive impact in Segarra’s world, especially those lost in the ether of time.

Another winner. This band can do no wrong.


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.