Door Girl (Northern Spy Records)
Out: September 22nd, 2017
Shilpa Ray sends us songs from New York on her new album. Mark Ray reviews for Louder Than War.
It isn’t often that I feel the thrill of anticipation of my teenage years when a favourite artist releases a new record. Shilpa Ray can still give me that thrill. For those of you unaware of her (and you should rectify that immediately) she works out of Brooklyn, and is in a long line of NY artists who chronicle the cities life in all its glory and decay. Like Lou Reed before her, she has the ability, whilst singing about NY, of making her themes universal. Indeed, I will put my neck out and say that Shilpa Ray is one of the two greatest songwriters living and working out of NY at this time, the other being Jeffrey Lewis. She makes music that few are today: intelligent, funny, subversive, concise, and a little crazy. She is a modern-day blues singer, aligned to a rock back beat and punk attitude, for the Binary Generation. Her intelligent and concise lyrics rip through the body of NY like a chainsaw going through paper, with a voice that channels blues-singers, an ancient voice coming to us down the ages of singers; it is distinctive, heartfelt, angry, passionate, waspish and sounds like it could crack at any moment. It’s conversational with many depths of emotions. Both strong and fragile. At times like we are eavesdropping on her thoughts, and at other times she’s like the weirdo screaming on the corner the truths that we are too dumb to hear. She can make me laugh and cry.
The album cover for Door Girl shows Shilpa Ray standing in a club, she remains the only point of focus, as figures move in blurs around her. She is the solid centre, the observer, whilst the people move and come and go and live and argue and love all around her. But she is not the aloof observer, she cannot but be affected by the maelstrom, but she is the one with the artist’s eye, who can chronicle it and try to put the chaos into some sort of understanding. The artists sending notes back to us from the frontier of our deepest, darkest and banal hang-ups. Above her is a sign that says Girls Are Free. Girls set free? Or girls free for patriarchal men to use and abuse. And girls? Shouldn’t it be women in a club?
Ray has done time working the doors of Lower East Side/New York bars and the album treats us to a dissection of that time, the people who passed through her life and the sights and sounds of a people always on the move, always looking for the next big thing, the next score, the next love.
The album opens with a chime, like an alarm clock, with NY Minute Prayer. It’s an overture to the day ahead, and it harks back to a 50s rock sound, which many of the songs on this album do, combined with a crooning male backing chorus, which creates a great juxtaposition with Ray’s sublime, broken blues voice. Morning Terrors Nights of Dread is a jaunty little tune describing the horrors of anxiety attacks. That Ray can turn the lonely despair of mental anxiety into a melancholy, toe-tapping little number is testament to her talent. When she sings ‘I wanna fit in the picture of someone else’s dream’, you can sense the angst of being trapped inside yourself. But it isn’t self-piteous, as Ray sings that ‘no-one gets it easy’. It all builds up to a frenzied finish. Revelations of a Stamp Monkey is reminiscent of Prince. In rap form it conjures up vivid, psychedelic images of street life, with a backbeat hard and resilient. This is the imagery of detritus spluttering around a wind-blown city street, where, in the end, nothing matters except making money to pay the rent. Add Value/Add Time starts with the refrain ‘work, work work. Die, die, die.’ It has a reggae beat, a sunshine sound spilling across a daily journey to work on the MTA, and the drifting thoughts of our narrator. The vocals are a soothing curse, lulling you into a smooth groove; you can imagine her, head against the glass, dreams of a broken future as she rattles along tracks taking her to work and thinking about the journey she will take when she dies. EMT Police And The Fire Department is the lead off single for the album and it’s a fucking scorcher. Up until now, the music has been more restrained than normal for a Ray album, but all hell breaks loose now. It opens with her channeling Jim Morrison and Patti Smith, spiritual noises providing the undercurrent for Ray’s beat poetry, building up to an explosion of music and screamed lyrics that will make you want to get up and smash something or join in with a primal scream of your own. It describes a club full of losers and chancers where things get so bad that all the emergency services are called. There is anger here, attacking the wasted lives: These are not the best minds of my generation. Destroyed by madness. Hysterical naked. These are not the best minds.
After Hours is a beautiful song with the emotion of an old blues singer imbued with the decay of an affair, the continual goodbyes. A melancholy lament for another wasted love affair. It sounds like she is propping up a bar after hours, telling the barkeep her troubles and woes. Shilpa Ray’s Got A Heart Full Of Dirt is a song about the dreams of youth that crumble into dust, the horrible realisation that you’ve reached that point of no return, where you’re an adult and those dreams of the good life have faded. It’s the dreadful epiphany that ‘No one needs to know why I wake up and where I go. No one needs to know where I’ve gotta be’. Manhattanoid Creepozoids is reminiscent of a show-tune, but here it is subverted into a tale of women being beaten and raped. The singer says she’s ‘not crazy for that kind of love’ in a mastery of understatement. The last verse states: ‘And they all say “She was asking for it”. Crawling through the meat markets in some slutty outfit on a Saturday night. When the ground feels frozen and tight. But I’m not crazy bout this kind of love.’ It’s a song that hits as hard as a fist to the stomach. Rockaway Blues, another great piece of 50s rock, tells the tale of the dream lover but finding only dust and shit where the man should be. It’s like a subtle Ramones song.
The album ends with two epic songs – interspersed by a musical interlude – that, on their own, would illuminate any album. You’re Fucking No One opens with a piano and guitar intro, a melancholy sound blowing through NY streets. Ray’s voice, all thoughtful, wistful, deep, dark, mournful, kicks in, dragging the listener into the streets with her, so we see through her eyes, through her mind, her vocals deep inside us. It’s a song about the gradual decay that is affecting all our cities. It’s a decay caused by gentrification, as money consumes, divides and reduces to nothing in a few years the communities that took decades to build.
My World Shatters By The BQE brings the album to a close. It’s an uplifting song amidst the noise and the decay of the city. ‘I’m looking forward to the sunlight laughing, behind your pollution of noise,’ she sings as trucks scream past her door. In a small apartment caught between arguing couples, rent to be paid, bodegas, and no big plans, she waits for the good times to come. Waits for the sunlight laughing. Sticking around for the good times to come. It’s a despairing hope. A reaching out with your hand through the window, into the smog and the grime, trying to feel the city, to grab a dream, and you pull the hand back and you have a can of coke and a pack of cigarettes. Looking forward to the sunlight laughing. The album ends to the sound of a subway train. And tomorrow it will all happen again.
The music is more contained and controlled on this album, compared to Ray’s previous albums, but there is an increased sense of world weariness, of melancholy, though seasoned with wit and venom. It is rare to find such intelligence coupled with great tunes. The overall effect conveyed by this modern-day blues god is as though we are listening to the singer’s innermost thoughts, which opens up our own minds to our own thoughts. She anchors her blues voice to raw rock and punk sneer, deepened with self-doubt and understanding: vulnerable yet strong, but always brave in the face of a panic attack inducing world. Often despairing, often angry, but always stunning. It is a shaky beauty, a dark glory, a sleazy cabaret of city life.
In the city decayed by gentrification, the spreading disease of corporations gobbling up the real inner cities, the bodegas and the delis, there is still a light that shines through the poet’s, Shilpa Ray’s, words.
Mark Ray is not related (as far as he knows) to Shilpa Ray.