Every so often, you get a feeling about some people. As if they were born on the wrong side of time and they’re waiting on a chance to find their way back there. Short of the invention of time machines or whatever Scott Bakula’s deal was in Quantum Leap, that’s not going to happen. So they cope with it, or they don’t and they fall to pieces.
‘Look Out Mama‘ is the kind of record that wants to show you how both of those concepts might work.
Look up Alynda Lee Segarra, and you may find a tintype of a young woman leaning a steel guitar up against a stool, looking for all the world as if she’s sitting out the Great Depression. Born in the Bronx and inexorably drawn to New Orleans, Segarra has been playing folksy country material since 2008’s ‘It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You‘, causing quite a stir with the London press.
Now that she has her very own band, The Tumbleweeds, she might satisfy her hankering for down ‘n’ dirty honky tonk rock ‘n’ roll. For two years they’ve been doing just that, playing a hundred shows across the US before stopping by Nashville to record ‘Look Out Mama’, putting their collective talent in the steady hands of Alabama Shakes producer Andrija Tokic. And here it is.
Swampy and sprightly in just the right doses, ‘Little Black Star‘ kicks off as the Riff Raff mean to go on, leaning on those lazy fiddles and splashy drums to introduce us to a sound elbowing and roustabouting for room somewhere between The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink‘ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main St.’.
They’re certainly channelling that kind of professional roguery by the time ‘Look Out Mama‘ rolls around, yodelling and yearning for a new start somewhere far from sorrow and loneliness. Segarra sings it like a Southern nursery rhyme coming from the lady in garters lying atop the juke joint piano, reeling off all the stories you could ever hope to hear about Jesus and swamps and alligator fights.
‘Ramblin’ Gal‘ and ‘What’s Wrong With Me‘ play as the flipside to Segarra’s wild and wandering spirit, looking inward and not liking what she sees very much. It’s the old ‘if I don’t let anyone close, I won’t get hurt’ story that everybody believes in until they don’t. ‘Ramblin’ Gal’ in particular has a touching sense of homelessness; drawing on Segarra’s own considerable experience of the road, we hear the story of the girl lost on the hidden highways, drifting from Louisana to Cheyenne to god knows where next, convinced the next town will be the one where she can stay longer than the last.
The middle of the record sees the Riff Raff try their hand at something else. ‘Ode to John and Yoko‘ reaches for that elusive Beatles sound, offering not so much a blow by blow biography of Lennon and his lady as it does a celebration of the eccentric dreamer imagery that typified their public appearances. ‘Lake of Fire‘ has a go at earnest declarations of love and shoo-wop surf rock with some impressive Surfari-type guitar rundowns for a dash of tension and urgency.
‘Riley‘ is perhaps the most intriguing of these experiments, an electric doom folk ballad where jealous lovers tell of tears and veiled threats. Think somewhere in the realms of Karen Elson’s ‘The Ghost Who Walks‘ or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s ‘Howl‘; raw, visceral wounds of the heart made all the more brutal for having been laid bare.
Beautifully subtle slide guitar marks out ‘Go Out On The Road‘ as ‘Look Out Mama’s most re-playable track. Segarra wraps all these hopeless heart-torn country stories into one lonesome after-hours blues. ‘Born To Win‘ rides this feeling of good will into a full-blown celebration of what it is to be young and poor with everything still to come and nobody to stop you when you come out swingin’. It’s just the sort of ‘everybody join in on this bit’ song ‘Hey Jude‘ used to be, before Paul McCartney smothered it to death over 40 years of encores.
Forget what you think you know about country music; the sickly string overdubs and oversize stetsons are for morons who don’t know country music is all about the depths of despair and the quiet triumphs of hard-won romance.
No song here quite captures the balance between those two like ‘Something’s Wrong‘, the low-key acoustic closer, recorded by running water. Somehow it gives this simple, world-weary song a grounding in reality we never knew we’d like so much.
This is music for a different pace of life; Hurray For The Riff Raff seem marvellously well-adjusted to it, but perhaps more impressive is that this rattling, yodelling, strangely seductive record has us wishing we were there with them.