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Shilpa Ray makes music like a dog biting an electric fence. Her latest album, Teenage and Torture, recorded at the appropriately named Seizure’s Palace in Gowanus, features her backing band, the Happy Hookers: John Adamski on percussion, Nick Hundley on bass, and Andrew Bailey on guitar, all playing a kind of blues that’s splayed out, wrenching, and driven, a result more of compulsion than composing.
As for Ray herself, like a more languid version of doomed folk singer Karen Dalton, she widens the spectrum of misery by wailing over the swells of her harmonium, a bellowed keyboard usually reserved for Indian music, her voice ringing like cracked crystal with words that are easy to understand: “Follow the night star/Right star/Dark star/Dead star,” she hollers on “Erotolepsy.” “I was under the impression over the last three years that lyrics and vocals don’t actually really matter at all,” she explains, regarding the importance of intelligibility, or lack thereof. “I’d gotten the criticism that I shouldn’t have so much going on . . . that it should just be the vocals and the harmonium and maybe something else in the background.”
Torture‘s track list betrays Ray’s caustic sense of the deadpan: “Hookers,” “Dames a Dime a Dozen,” “Requiem in a Key I Don’t Know.” “I’m not going to lie and say I don’t pay attention to writing song titles,” she admits. “I think I pay too much attention to writing lyrics. I love storylines. I love characters.” The young girl riddled with STDs in “The Chelsea Clinic Physical” is one such character, asking with acid precision in the refrain, “Do you love your freedom?” “I don’t think I’ve really lived a life where I can afford to be an abstract thinker,” she continues. “I work a lot, and I hate both my jobs—even though I like working with the people I work with, they’re not the most pleasant jobs to work. I don’t really spend a lot of time being an artist or being magical or mystical or acting like a unicorn or whatever. I work as a salesgirl, and then I work as a door-girl. I’ve been a salesgirl since I was 16, and I’ve worked every single crazy job you could think of doing that. I recently started working the door at Piano’s.”
She pauses for diplomatic and dramatic effect.
“You have to have a sense of humor when you’re working in the service industry, especially in New York City.”
Is this album about appetite? “Yeah! I’m hungry! I want what I can’t always have, and I think that’s what the challenge is. And it’s everyday shit! And I’m past a certain age—getting new sheets for me is really exciting.” Staggering beyond the mundane, beyond the banal, Teenage and Torture is a stellar collection of blowsy, unwholesome songs: writhing, scathing, and endlessly worthwhile. It’s also the year’s first sane protest against a world that’s less like a unicorn than it is like bobbing for turds in a bucket of nails.
Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers play the Brooklyn Bowl on Friday, January 21, shilparay.com