There is a community of travelling musicians in America who aren’t so much typical touring groups as they are true transients hopping freight trains across the country. Alynda Lee Segarra was once such a transient before beginning a more traditional musical career. But that past makes The Navigator, her fifth album as part of music collective Hurray for the Riff Raff, even richer with its tales of travelling and searching for place. Opening with the bustling sounds of a train station, The Navigator is a fairly holistic reflection on Sagarra’s journey since leaving her home in the Bronx at 17.

The gospel singers on “Entrance” lead into Segarra’s own ode to the rails, “If you listen real close to the engine’s roar/ You hear a choir of angels sing the heavenly score.” But the journey explored here isn’t merely a physical one of travelling but of searching out roots, new and old. “Where did my people go?/ The Navigator wants to know,” Segarra sings on the title track, giving context to her musical exploration of her Puerto Rican roots. The languid folk track “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” shows proud defiance in the story of a girl who resists changing for a lover. But gentle acoustic strumming turns into rollicking Caribbean breakdown. “Rican Beach” sees political fire infused into the folk, with Segarra crying “First they stole our language/ Then they stole our names…Well you can take my life/ But don’t take my home.” A certain wall even gets a mention.

But The Navigator isn’t an album about Segarra and co. discovering Puerto Rican musical styles. Almost a decade of travelling and soaking up music translates into a wide ranging album that covers Caribbean styles, punk-tinged folk rock and soulful country. “Living in the City” and “Hungry Ghost” sound like Riff Raff’s take on indie rock, with bright electric guitars. Segarra’s vocals on the latter are deeper, more evocative and reflect a “lonely girl“‘s sincere hunger for travel and new experiences. “Life to Save” is a lonesome, wailing country tune, all acoustic guitars and even a rickety backing piano. Dramatic violins make an appearance on the title track, enriching an arrangement that already boasts blocky percussion and island guitar.

Halfway through, the album has already proven itself to be an enthralling concept album of sorts, focused on travel. But the second half stacks more experimental efforts for Riff Raff, such as “Fourteen Floors” and “Pa’lante.” The former highlights a minimal piano and Segarra’s melancholy vocals, but that’s embellished by her subtle banjo picking, a perfect accompaniment to her voice. And the morose track surprisingly ends with the sounds of a Caribbean party. “Settle” similarly opts for a more minimalist soundscape, but adds near-oriental strings and surfy electric guitar lines. “Pa’lante,” however, sees Segarra blend her folk songwriting chops with this Puerto Rican focus in a six-minute epic. Her repetition of the desire and, eventually, demand to “be something” sound like the best populist folk songs, but when the chugging drums and piano are introduced, the track switches to Spanish with lines from Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary.” Segarra’s next lines exclaim “Pa’lante!” (“Forward”) to “all who’ve lost their pride/ All who have to survive like this…” etc.

Compared to earlier albums Small Town Heroes or their self-titled release, The Navigator broadens the scope of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s folk to encompass influences from street musical and beyond. That they are able to tie that into a roots narrative makes it an all the more engaging album and one that highlights frontwoman Segarra’s own experiences, irrevocably tying this album to her. By telling that story, this album becomes not just more personal but more powerfully distinct among efforts from numerous other ragtag folk bands.

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