Michael Erfort got deep and emotional with the Riff Raff. Hurray for long reviews and in depth analyses of messy beautiful emotions.


For some inexplicable reason I have always been drawn to road narratives. I could list favourite movies, albums and books and inevitably they would have some kind of focus on the road. The intrigue of moving and having music blaring represents a type of freedom that I absolutely relate to. It should be noted that I am always in the passenger seat… I don’t drive at all. Maybe this makes moving even more intriguing. The idea of watching people moving from A to B represents a weird progress that I have not partaken in but have always observed with unreasonable interest and excitement. Road Narratives in the conventional sense always include a quest, whether it be for the attainment of physical wealth or spiritual redemption. This theme makes me consciously seek out art that embody these quests. In Romance Of The Road, Ronald Primeau points out that “Americans are in love with roads and cars and we celebrate this romance in song, poetry and film.” Many of these works of art (eg Huckelberry Finn and On The Road) cover the themes of slavery, moral values, freedom, familial bonds, hope, escape and ultimately redemption. Notable musical examples would be Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. On these albums, movement is fundamental in breaking away from the mundane and going on a quest of self-discovery (to very varying degrees). Primeau confirms this in the following:

Roads and cars have long gone beyond simple transportation to become places of exhilarating motion, speed and solitude. Road narratives are fiction and non-fiction works by people who travel by car throughout the country either on a quest or simply to get away. The most common narrative structure follows the sequence of the journey from preparation to departure, routing, decisions about goals and modes of transport, the arrival, return and re-entry, and finally, the recording or reconstructing of events in the telling of the story.

Technology has brought vast improvements to all modes of transport. Ironically, those very vehicles have symbolised a means to escape from all the cons that advancement provides. The mythology created around Hurray For The Riff Raff (essentially Alynda Segarra) is that they left home at 17 and jumped freight trains in order to attain some form of liberation. Whether you believe the mythology or not, The Past Is Still Alive reveals itself as one of the greatest road narratives in modern times. The album also makes the mythology believable. Throughout there is mention of vehicles namely cars, buses, trains and even helicopters. This intensifies the feeling of movement. This album embodies every theme contained in road narratives but delivers it in the most refreshing way. I feel that Segarra not only conveys incredible musicality and next-level singing but they also seem to have created a vernacular specific to this album for themselves and the listener.  The more I listen to the album, the more I feel that somehow it is deeply related to Dylan’s “Shelter from the storm”. It feels as if the theme of the Dylan song is echoed throughout the album. In the Dylan song each verse describes his displacement which is met with the line “come in she said I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” The conversation between Segarra and whatever plight she is dealing with is met with a positive response which takes a similar form to “come in she said I’ll give you shelter from the storm”.  In each song it feels like some form of comfort is being offered. Often the comfort is self-knowledge or self-realisation. One gets the distinct impression that Segarra finds their true self and the identity and confidence they have always been searching for.  Every song is a quest on various levels and every song achieves its specific quest.

One of the many strong points on this album is the impeccable storytelling. The opening track “Alibi” manages to focus on finer details in the most incredible way. Segarra literally is telling someone that they will no longer be their alibi. Their reason for this choice is stated in the following lines: “Thawing out my heart like meat/I see your track marks poking through your hoodie sleeve.” This quality of writing is maintained throughout.  The sting of the lyrics undoubtedly confirms that most of these songs are autobiographical.

“Buffalo” focusses on approaching things from a new perspective in a fearless way. This is not always easy because of the past of its powerful impact. The album title, The Past is Still Alive seems like a ghost haunting the songs and warning how strongly history codes our behaviour. Cautiousness and patience, rather than fear, should be the lessons we learn from the past.

Another notable aspect of the album is the characters that crop up in various songs. For me the most intriguing is Ms Jonathan who features in “Hawkmoon”:

And you’ll never know the way I miss Miss Jonathan/She was beaten in the street
And then I never saw her again/ She opened up my mind in the holes of her fishnet tights/ Dildo waving on her car antenna/And I coulda ridden shot gun forever.

Segarra’s singing is incredible on this song and reflects the mixed emotions of the song’s lyrics to wonderous effect.

In “Colossus of Roads” Segarra name-checks poet Eileen Myles, who has been an inspiration to her in terms of confronting issues related to identity and finding a sense of belonging. Segarra highlights issues of freedom, unity and imminent change. The lines “Say goodbye to America/I wanna see it dissolve/I can be your poster boy for the great American fall” sound ominous and creates a feeling of destabilisation. In line with road narratives, some change is about to happen that will have a major impact. Interestingly, another great vestige of americana, the cowboy, rears its head in this song albeit in a deconstructed way. “Cowboy hat and a cigarette” would to many signify a strong, self-reliant man enforced further by actors like James Dean and John Wayne. However, if one noted the press pictures that accompanied the release of The Past Is Still Alive, one would see Segarra dressed in typical “cowboy gear”. When I listen to the line “Cowboy hat and a cigarette”,  I don’t picture John Wayne, James Dean or any other cowboy figure. I picture Segarra. I think it’s a brilliant type of re-coding of the familiar and giving new meaning to something old and tired. In the context of this landscape Segarra is the self-reliant and brave hero. A new kind of cowboy in a world that needs a new kind of action. I may be taking this too far, but I do feel this album has not only crossed boundaries but reorganised them.

“Snake Plant” is an obvious road narrative with lines pivotal to the album as a whole: “Pee in the bushes while I wait for a train under the bridge when it starts to rain/ I never got to ride the sunset route or They don’t even really know my name/I’m so happy that we escaped from where we came. These lines highlight how movement or travel help us redefine ourselves. This sentiment is an overarching theme that contributes to the cohesiveness of this album.

Generally, unity and loyalty are also major themes. This is perfectly captured in “The World Is Dangerous”, a duet with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. Segarra’s strength throughout is her ability to express complex emotions in simple terms. The following sentiments could easily have been dialogue from Thelma and Louise: You’re not the person you thought you’d be but I still love you or I won’t desert you when times get rough tell the bartender when you’ve had enough. These lines give you the impression that Segarra is not only loyal to the characters she encounters but also to her various causes. She raises many issues but never comes across as self-righteous or all knowing. Her casual observations broach issues in a sensitive way and resolutions are negotiated rather than prescribed. Bono can learn from this.

Final track of the album “Ogallala” reinforces the feeling I had from the opening track, that of being a passenger while Segarra shows me their world. It’s a beautiful way to end an album. It doesn’t resolve into any kind of certainty, rather there is an ambivalence that prevails. The line Now what do I do with this terrible feeling?/Been all these years I’m driving the same highway stretch/You know that scene at the end of “Titanic”?/Well I’m the one who’s still playing on the deck” seems apathetic and resigned while a sense of acceptance and mild optimism is reflected in “I used to think I was born into the wrong generation/But now I know I made it right on time”.  The song ends with the refrain; “to watch the world burn with a tear in my eye/to watch the world burn/ I’m right on time” By the time these lines hit you, you are dizzy by the impact of this album. Every single song is perfectly connected and magnificently performed. The album not only feels like the completion of a journey but also like a beginning of a new one.

(This review would have been impossible without the input of Danie Marais, Desmond Painter, Rene Eloff and Paulene Erfort)