Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes (ATO Records)

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes, Album Cover, OffBeat Magazine, April 2014

With the release of Small Town Heroes, the buzz around Alynda Lee Segarra’s Hurray for the Riff Raff has exploded into a full-fledged roar—and for good reason. Released less than a year after the cover-heavy My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, Segarra’s major-label debut showcases original work that uses an ancestral tree of American music as a launch pad for broader statements about society and our place in the world.

Whether the subject is violence, escape or pure sunlit love; whether the tune’s roots lie in early blues, folk, protest music or country-Western swing, Segarra manages to distill big-picture ideas into smaller, more digestible elements and images, rendering them as powerful as they are poetic.

“Crash on the Highway” is, on one level, a familiar ode to a traveler’s yearning for home. But beneath its breezy, rolling meter and light-hearted references to roadside boozing is a darker warning to “take it easy on your narrow way,” a lyric that invokes Biblical danger or Dylan’s classic tune, if not both. Segarra also tackles sexual violence in dichotomous terms on “The Body Electric,” where a low-voiced refrain about “a man with a rifle in his hand” echoes until, at the very end, Segarra flips it and makes it personal by asking about the rifle-holder’s own daughter. Similarly, “St Roch Blues” is achingly pretty despite its message, thanks to elements like the quavering purr of her phrasing and the ’50s-era R&B rhythm that slides under lyrics about flying bullets.

Not that Small Town Heroes is without a dose of straight-up bliss. The addictive, up-tempo “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)” sees a more countrified version of her band stretching out with rich harmonies as Segarra trades restraint for a little belting, proving she can do pop with as much passion as politics.