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Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Past Is Still Alive Album Review

February 27, 2024 - Music

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In Juan Gómez Bárcena’s 2023 novel Not Even the Dead, a former conquistador accepts a mysterious quest from the colonial government of Mexico. He must leave his wife and home, but it’s going to be worth it—the job pays gold, and it should only take two weeks. Off he goes, riding horseback into numerous trials and tribulations, all the while reassuring himself: Two weeks. Two more weeks will do the trick. Two weeks is the least of his problems because he’s not only riding, he’s time traveling—advancing by decades and then centuries, tripping and stumbling into future worlds where the legends and prejudices of the past continually take on new shapes. Eventually he’s reincarnated as a migrant worker, hitching a ride on a train.

“Time can take you for a ride,” Alynda Segarra sings near the top of their ninth album, The Past Is Still Alive. Rather than horses, Segarra mostly writes about trains, because they used to hop a few themself and because of the way the train, the first rhythm of rural industrialization, runs beneath the American blues and folk music that inform their career as Hurray for the Riff Raff. That’s the shaky-steady forward momentum driving The Past Is Still Alive: part folk-punk memoir, part harm-reduction PSA, part spiritual invocation and/or world-historical séance. The location is: Out there somewhere and the time is: Don’t you know all time is connected?

The Past Is Still Alive represents a turn back toward more traditionally Americana textures after 2022’s Life on Earth, a kind of electronic rewilding project that followed the slicker, self-consciously conceptual The Navigator. The sound is dusky, naturalistic, one-third electric and two-thirds acoustic; we see softness and joy in the human experience and, lurking in the background, violence, fentanyl, and barrels of crude. Producer Brad Cook plays bass here, along with a core studio lineup including brother Phil Cook (piano, organ, Wurltizer, dobro) and drummer Yan Westerlund—what one might call the alternate-reality Megafaun, featuring two original member-brothers and the third member’s brother (behold, the ever-reaching influence of DeYarmond Edison).

Elements from Segarra’s biography appear in flashes throughout their discography but rarely as explicitly as in The Past Is Still Alive, a vivid time travelogue that reflects on Segarra’s youthful misadventures as a “dirty kid” or punk traveler with humility, nostalgia, and transhistorical perspective. In the retelling, shoplifting and dumpster diving for food represent both self-sufficiency and secret shame. And when you have no place to go, a train will take you somewhere. It’s certainly not the lifestyle for everyone: “Here’s a silver spoon, you can eat your heart out as a prize,” Segarra taunts, or cautions, on highlight “Hawkmoon,” a rollicking coming-of-age story honoring a trans mentor, Miss Jonathan, who’s assaulted and never seen again.

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