Shilpa Ray Door Girl

[Northern Spy; 2017]

Styles: doo-wop, punk, blues, New York
Others: Beat the Devil, Lou Reed, Blondie, Phil Spector

New York City has been a fixture of Shilpa Ray’s art since her Beat the Devil days, but Door Girl puts the Big Apple front and center like never before. From the “New York Minute Prayer” of the opening track to the shattering of her heart by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at the album’s conclusion, the city that Ray both loves and loathes is never quite out of view. It’s this focus on her hometown that propels her sophomore solo album.

Most notable is that the bluesier elements have moved to the background and her harmonium disappears altogether to make room for unexpected influences. “Revelations of a Stamp Monkey” finds Ray dipping her toe into hip-hop with a metronomic rap reminiscent of Debbie Harry’s boundary-breaking bars on “Rapture.” On the album’s lead single, “EMT Police and the Fire Department,” Ray deliberately mines punk’s New York roots, plunging from a gauzy spoken word intro into a razor-studded verse-chorus. The song swirls together Reed, Hell, Smith, and The Deadboys (with a little Ginsberg sprinkled in for good measure) into a delirious medley, all in the service of a narrative about belligerent drunks and the misfortunes that befall them. It’s the kind of song that could close down her set for the rest of her career.

But the most surprising development is the prevalence of doo-wop, a style of music that originated on the street corners of the city. Door Girl is awash with close harmonies and four-chord progressions, from the more straightforward homages of “New York Minute Prayer” and “Rockaway Blues” to the ingeniously hybridized “Morning Terrors Nights of Dread” and “Shilpa Ray’s Got a Heart Full of Dirt.” The latter songs graft doo-wop’s catchiness with Ray’s ragged punk sensibilities to yield a pair of blistering earworms.

Lyrically, Ray is in top form. An album about New York is far from an original concept and could easily lend itself Lena Dunham-esque wankery, but while Door Girl may be rooted in a particular place, the themes it explores are bound to resonate beyond the five boroughs. “Revelations of a Stamp Monkey” tackles the murder of Eric Garner (“Watched a man getting choked on TV/ Crying ‘Help’ saying ‘I can’t breath’”) and the seemingly unbridgeable divide between those who regard the event with horror and those who regard it with indifference. “Add Value Add Time” amplifies the seemingly innocent menu prompt of an NYC transit kiosk into an existential question about what it means to live a good life under capitalism. Indeed, the oppressive specter of capital, which wears the city like a skin suit, can be felt at various points throughout the album, in the financial anxieties of “Morning Terrors” and “Revelations’s” flat declaration: “My heart went straight to making the rent.

Door Girl finds Ray advancing her already top-notch songwriting chops to dizzying new heights. Several of her offerings here stand out as career-bests and nudge the album toward greatness, even if it gets weighed down by the quieter material in its back half. It’s an album that proclaims its creator’s love for her hometown and the vibrant cultural movements that have issued from it, while also acknowledging a destructive nature that’s better camouflaged since the Giuliani years, but never gone entirely.

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