Cover albums are tricky affairs. Choosing well-worn hits from the masters can lead to your effort falling flat. Selecting songs so ubiquitous as covers is a fruitless enterprise as lending a new take is all but impossible. Then there are those rare songs that take on a life of their own, often overshadowing the original (see: “Hurt,” “Hallelujah,” “All Along the Watchtower”).
Alynda lee Segarra as Hurray for the Riff Raff avoids the former pitfalls on My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, a collection of traditionals and covers by the likes of Townes Van Zandt, John Lennon, George Harrison, Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. An accomplished artist in her own right, Segarra mixes in arranged compositions and two originals that dovetail nicely in the album’s sequence.
Subtly blending blues, country and folk throughout My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, it’s Segarra’s voice and arrangements that allow My Dearest Darkest Neighbor to breath on its own. Staying true to the more contemporary songs “My Morphine” (Gillian Welch) and “People Talkin'” (Lucinda Williams), Segarra roughs up the remaining covers with an edge not before evident.
Gone is the “Jingle Bell” riff in Joni Mitchell’s piano ballad “River,” replaced by acoustic guitar. The country waltz of James Hand’s “Just a Heart” becomes a sparse folk ballad. Paired with pensive fiddle playing, Segarra’s vocal warble transforms Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry” into a haunting blues number.
Citing the above songwriters as influences on her artistic growth, Segarra — a New Orleans resident — alters the foundations of her selections to place them in a new context, one which often predates their origins. While the songs on My Dearest Darkest Neighbor may not eclipse the stature of the originals, the album does stand as a testament to the ear of Segarra in recognizing the power of profound storytelling. The true achievement here is how she arranges the songs in her own fashion, demonstrating their timeless nature. Intentionally less polished than the source material, one can’t help but wonder if the grit of post-Katrina New Orleans helped inform the recording of these songs, possibly altering their meaning in turn for future generations.
Stream/purchase My Dearest Darkest Neighbor below.