Song of the Week – Living in the City, Hurray for the Riff Raff

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This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album considered by many to be among the first “concept” albums of the Rock era. The album was intended to be seen as a performance by the fictional band that bore the name of the album.

Today it is often lamented by baby boomers that due to the most popular, current music consumption vehicles – streaming and to a lesser degree iTunes libraries – the industry has become a hits only market. Conventional wisdom says that musicians don’t record “statements” and consumers aren’t interested in listening to a whole album by a single artist.

While that may be true in general, it is not without exception. One of my favorite albums of the “aughts” is Separation Sunday (2005) by The Hold Steady. It is a concept album that explored themes of conflict between Christianity and pimps, prostitutes, skinheads and drug addicts.

In March, Hurray for the Riff Raff released their 6th album called The Navigator, itself a concept album. HFTRR is a band led by Alynda Segarra, a woman with a very interesting backstory. (More about that in a bit.)

The Navigator unfolds in two acts and follows Segarra’s alter ego, Navita, who feels the need to escape the city. She visits a bruja (witch) who she asks to put her under a spell for 40 years. Act two begins when she wakes from the spell and discovers the city she once knew is now gone. (It has been gentrified.)

Somewhat autobiographical, it explores the urban territory that has long been the playground for Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. (This is a departure from earlier HFTRR albums that leaned more toward the Americana of Dylan and The Band.)

Segarra was raised in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of New York. By the age of 17 she was steeped in the writings of the Beat generation and left home see America riding the rails. Caught illegally freight hopping in Ashville, NC, she was facing a month in jail when she was bailed out by friends. She moved on to New Orleans in 2004, found a connection to that city, and stayed there for 10 years. It was there that she started to write songs and sing. In 2014 she moved to Nashville but felt out of place being a city born Puerto Rican – not a southerner. Feeling like an outsider, Segarra began to reconnect to her ethnic roots and returned to New York.

Today’s SotW is “Living in the City” from The Navigator.

“Living in the City” tells the story of the young Navi (Segarra), living in the projects and observing the characters (Big Danny, Mariposa, Gypsy) and behaviors that led her to want to escape. Lyrically “Living in the City” reminds me of Born to Run era Springsteen — like “Meeting Across the River” and “Jungleland.”

Musically the song harkens back to Reed’s “Sweet Jane.”

Overall, The Navigator is a terrific record and proves the concept album is not dead. I strongly recommend you check it out on Spotify or YouTube.

Enjoy… until next week.

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