In music writing as elsewhere, shortened attention spans and a craving to be spoonfed have led to the unfortunate development of lazily reductive shorthand, enabling a user-friendly pitch of a particular artist even as it simplifies and undervalues their complexity. Hence Amanda Palmer’s pigeonholing as kooky cabaret diva, Nicki Minaj as cartoonish pocket Missy, and Shilpa Ray as whiskey-soaked wildwoman, when they’re all more interesting than that. Sure, Teenage & Torture, like 2009 debut A Fishhook An Open Eye, has the requisite blues-rock base and throat-shredding vocal superstructure to justify this stylistic categorisation, but the Mad Bad Girl tag is particularly pernicious. It’s a comforting label that makes sense of the discomforting, allowing, in this case, Ray’s rage-fuelled dissections of feminine ideals, sexual mores and consumer culture to be glossed as hysterical spectacle. The more we exoticise a performer as irrational and unfamiliar, the less valid and identifiable in our everyday surroundings we render her concerns and accusations.
Shilpa Ray rounded off an increasingly successful 2010 by opening for Grinderman on their November tour – an experience which, for the audience, must have been akin to getting a steely shot of vaccine before being left to wade through a disease-ridden swamp. There are twinges of Nick Cave in the strutting and rutting that characterise her performance, but there’s also Patti Smith’s verbal panache, Janis Joplin’s gruff sincerity, and shades of the hard-boiled, tough-talking dames splendidly portrayed by Mae West. For all the scrappy musical discordance that surrounds her, Ray’s presentation and delivery are never messy, more a born survivor’s survey of life’s clutter and chaos.
When not looping in backwoods lupine howls and yelps, Ray’s voice stretches out like pulling taffy, wrapping itself around her band’s primal beats, scratchy-slick riffs and walking basslines, shadowed by the gloopy, nagging wail of her harmonium. Her lyrics are impressionist, an accomplished stream-of-sexual-and-social-consciousness poured out in vocals that are equal parts Marlboro Red smoke and maple syrup. The subject matter is refreshingly indecorous without being prurient; Ray has a fine sense of a certain audience – like the “classy collegiate boys” baited on ‘Hookers’ – for whom her music and lyrics hold the fascination of the gutter, the bar after closing time, the backstreets and street corners – grimy cogs that keep the shiny city functioning. Shilpa Ray, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, works two day jobs and hates them both.
The album, says Ray, “isn’t as thrown together as the first one…The first record was like a series of thoughts, this is one big thought.” This concept is both help and hindrance to enjoying Teenage & Torture, whose songs display less individual personality than on the debut. From the staticky blues stomp of ‘Hookers’, through the stately sweep of ‘Dames A Dime A Dozen’, to the slow-burn close of ‘Requiem In A Key I Don’t Know’, little sharply distinguishes one track from the next, a feeling reinforced by the murky, distorted production in which songs rise from lapping waves of reverb then similarly blink out of existence. There are some choice cuts – the crisp handclaps and swerving chorus of lead single ‘Heaven In Stereo’, the Strokes-y double-act of ‘Erotolepsy’ and ‘Chelsea Clinic Physical’ – but overall Teenage & Torture challenges the listener to swallow it whole, if you can.
Written for Wears the Trousers.