8 Tracks: Hurray for the Riff Raff's twang is heart full, but heartbroken
8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.
Bob Dylan's The Lyrics, Lou Reed's I'll Be Your Mirror, Joni Mitchell's Complete Poems and Lyrics, Yale University Press' The Anthology of Rap — it's only in the last few decades that book publishers have begun to treat lyrics as an art form in itself. So when I saw that Oxford American, a renowned literary magazine, published the lyrics to two new Hurray for the Riff Raff songs, I let out a little cheer. Alynda Segarra examines our frailty and resilience with an unsparing, yet tender cadence — their music, always evolving, responds to the contour of their words.
Here are eight recently released tracks — plus a throwback — with lyrics that stand on their own as poetry.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, "Colossus of Roads"
Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra has shown us their poetic power from fights for justice to radical revolutions of relationship, but here captures a complicated reality. "Colossus of Roads," named for boxcar graffiti artist buZ blurr who just recently passed, threads a difficult needle: how we find love, safety and inspiration in queer and outsider spaces, which are underlined by threats of violence. A dusty arrangement of guitar, pedal steel and an out-of-tune piano tumbles along with a chorus-less ramble — the kind of heart-full-but-heartbroken twang that rings your soul. "I know that it's dangerous, but I wanna see you undress," they sing. "Wrap you up in the bomb shelter of my feather bed."
Rosie Tucker, "All My Exes Live in Vortexes"
Here's a particular flavor of despair: Plastic and consumer waste anxiety candy-coated in a sugary pop-punk shell... oh, and the memory of a relationship gone wrong stuck to the wrapper. Rosie Tucker's earworm songwriting is concise and compact, layering harmonies judiciously, but their not-so-secret weapon is a tragi-comic swirl that points the fingers at capitalist fatalism as much as themselves. "I hope no one had to piss in a bottle at work to get the thing I ordered on the internet," they sing, only to return one verse later with a vengeance: "I know every time you sip from a bottle of piss and remember me the memory degrades."
Benny the Butcher, "TMVTL"
Benny the Butcher raps like Jorge Fornés draws comics: Thick brushstrokes somehow both cloak and reveal hidden intentions. "A lot of his music is about the grind," my colleague Sheldon Pearce said on NPR's New Music Friday podcast, "about striving and pushing and aspiring for more, but he never loses sight of all that was left in his wake." Benny's typically an Album Experience, but I'm particularly drawn to "TMVTL" from Everybody Can't Go. Three different stories in three verses, separated by three different beats via The Alchemist, yet it's clear that Benny wants us to connect the sins of these streets, including his own: "I'm from where tragedy made us strengthen and casualties don't make a difference."
Sunny Day Real Estate, "Novum Vetus"
An ancient wisdom haunts Sunny Day Real Estate's first new song in a decade. Originally conceived in 1997, "Novum Vetus" waltzes with existential wonder, not unlike the music found on 1998's How It Feels to Be Something On, the emo band's celestial masterpiece. Jeremy Enigk, Dan Hoerner and William Goldsmith finished the song with new members for Diary - Live at London Bridge Studio. Like its Latin title, which means "everything old is new again," Enigk leans into a past memory with grace: "Far removed from the wounds, they still breathe," he sings, his illuminated rasp now a richer hue. "Every open door is a world turned on its side."
NØ MAN, "Glitter and Spit"
Existence breeds exhaustion. NØ MAN, which is basically the next life of D.C. screamo OGs Majority Rule, gives vocalist Maha Shami space to howl her experiences as a woman and, most poignantly, as the daughter of Palestinian refugees. "Glitter and Spit" alternates between blackened crust riffs and gothic post-punk melody, but never removes the teeth from the jowl. And yet, Shami screams to be seen more than a "bomb threat, covered in glitter and spit."
In thinking about how lyrics can stand on their own, I came back to Low's 1994 debut, I Could Live in Hope. This is when the band had a reputation for slow, minimalist indie rock, yet so much happens in those moments that linger. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker give us a glimpse, but not the whole picture of a "man in a box" who "wants to burn my soul." Is the man a fire-and-brimstone preacher? Is this a courtroom drama? There are clues, but no answers. It's gorgeous, creepy and surprisingly threatening. And perhaps a bit tongue in cheek as Sparhawk repeats a self-aware mantra: "Too many words, too many words."
Bad Tuner, "24 hours"
If you grew up in the '90s — or found your way back there through TikTok — this dance track's outrageous Big Beat production will sound familiar: Think The Chemical Brothers or The Prodigy, electronic artists with bomb-tossed hip-hop beats and a high-energy house pulse. Like Daft Punk before him, Bad Tuner takes a simple phrase and builds a world around its incantatory properties. At first, its incessant repetition is obnoxious, but becomes a graffiti-worthy rallying cry to rise up: "In 24 hours, the world could be ours."
Megan Thee Stallion, "HISS"
Meg's master-level takedown will be studied by diss track historians for ages to come. Bloggers, YouTube personalities, exes and wannabe exes riding on Meg's fame and name — no one is immune to Meg's venom, one who spits, often in couplets, like the Bard of Houston: cutting, cunning and funny all at once. To wit, Meg juxtaposes Mariah Carey's early 2000s beef with Eminem (which she won) with a certain sex tape: "I feel like Mariah Carey, got these n***** so obsessed / My p**** so famous, might get managed by Kris Jenner next." But the devastation leveled at Nicki Minaj — the main character of Meg's vitriol — is something else entirely, best explained by my colleague Sidney Madden, but summed up in one line: "These hoes don't be mad at Megan, these hoes mad at Megan's Law." Nicki responded by rhyming foot with foot; it must be said, The Shaggs did better by feet.
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