There’s a casual effortlessness to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new record Small Town Heroes. Throughout these twelve songs it genuinely feels like the band is sitting on your back porch with you and running through standards that you’ve heard a hundred times and they’ve played a hundred times. Everything from instrumentation to vocals to lyrics are understated and seductive.
Hurray… incorporates fiddle, banjo, piano, guitar and gentle, but well-placed drums and percussion. They are a folk band completely aware and engulfed in the tradition. Yet, they make no effort to convince the listener that they are the genuine article, either in image or in music. They just are.
Unfortunately, the strength of Small Town Heroes is also its weakness. The combination of understated and seductive instrumentation and vocal delivery lulls me away from the messages within several of the finest songs here. “The Body Electric” deals with the acceptance of domestic violence through the lens of the popularity of murder ballads. “Delia’s Gone,” made famous by Johnny Cash, is name-checked but because the story is told so subtly and the tone is so similar to “Blue Ridge Mountain” (a good song but not one dealing with such a serious issue) it really requires a careful listen to catch the message in the song.
I don’t want you to think I don’t love this record, I do. It’s Essential Listening, but I feel that the punches could be a little harder and the moods more exaggerated. I feel the same way about Gillian Welch records and I also think the stories that introduce some of these songs in a live setting would be more interesting and insightful than the songs themselves. (Think Todd Snider and “18 Wheels of Love”) But despite my criticisms, Small Town Heroes is an amazing record by a band that is in control of their art.