On Look Out Mama, Hurray for the Riff Raff expands its sonic palette while maintaining the simple, basic nature of their songs and lyrics. The band has added more percussion and touches of piano to the guitar and violin of their previous releases, fleshing out its sound (a bit—there’s still a lot of space between instruments) and firming up the rhythm. That updates the sound to mid-20th Century acoustic music, but the production and sensibility keeps the band from sounding retro. Alynda Lee Segarra’s songs are still based in country and folk, and she’s a deceptive lyricist. They’re plain-spoken and largely in the idiom, but there are touches that reveal more complexity than is obvious.
When Segarra sings, “Oh my soul, what’s lost can never be retrieved / Oh Lord what’s wrong with me?” or “I used to be a ramblin’ gal / but I got tired / and settled down,” she is mining the same sentiments and archetypes that worked for Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, and it works for her too. Her voice is plaintive and unadorned, touched with resignation and vulnerability. It’s at the core of the band, and her growth as a vocalist is impressive. When she sings “Go Out on the Road,” she doesn’t project a mood or single thought; you can hear a full range of emotions expressed, changing from line to line.
In the past, the band has sometimes played as it hoped no one would notice. On Look Out Mama, the rockabilly-meets-girl group sound of “Lake of Fire” and the fantastic harmonica and catchy, sing-a-long chorus of “Born to Win” suggest a far more confident and assertive Riff Raff. This is an excellent collection of songs that proves that heartfelt, restrained vocals with good songs and simple arrangements can still be a powerful combination.