Shilpa Ray Last Year’s Savage

[Northern Spy; 2015]

Styles: blues punk cabaret
Others: Beat the Devil, Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Gossip

My first introduction to Shilpa Ray came in the form of “Hookers,” the opening track to Her Happy Hookers’ 2011 sophomore record Teenage and Torture. The song found Ray bellowing “Click on me, boys/ Click on me/ I like the right kind of music / And the right kind of movies,” like a prostitute standing in the window of some kind of digital red-light district. Whether she was talking about online dating or Suicide Girls, the message was clear: in the meat markets of the 21st century, it’s not enough for women to mold their bodies to suit the male gaze; they must contort their interests, their personalities, their very last vestige of self.

But while T&T may have made a recurring theme of exploring the extent to which women’s desire, sexual or otherwise, is externally manipulated, her long-incubating solo follow-up opens with a glimpse of female sexuality honed to a weaponized edge. “The Burning Bride” subverts a horrific practice of domestic violence indigenous to the Asian subcontinent to explore the fearful power of female sexuality. “You’ll be lucky when she runs out of desire,” Ray tells us, but the threat implicit to this utterance is tempered by the following line: “Sunshine when her corpse is on fire.” This couplet neatly stakes out two of the topoi of Last Year’s Savage: sex and self-destruction.

If all of this sounds very serious and adult, let me take a moment to pause and clarify: Ray possesses a rare quality as an artist — the ability to say something serious about sex without taking sex too seriously. Like her previous works, Last Year’s Savage is keenly intelligent and riotously good fun. Take as Exhibit A her sly incorporation of a notorious and (maybe unintentionally) hilarious image from E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime into “Nocturnal Emissions.” Take as Exhibit B the vehemence with which she spits the chorus to “Pop Song for Euthanasia,” in which she envisions herself going out in a Thelma and Louise-style blaze of glory. No matter how heady the subject matter, Ray delivers her lines with an impish sense of humor and a belly fire that melts steel.

Still, Last Year’s Savage is a comparatively quiet set. Jon “Catfish” DeLorme and Alistair Paxton favor cleaner guitar tones over the garage-rock rip of Happy Hookers axe-man Andrew Bailey. Ray adjusts her voice accordingly. On the album’s more serene offerings like “Oh My Northern Soul” and “Hymn,” her delivery is silky and sweet, while the album’s more anarchic moments clear a space for her full-throated animal roar. The accordion-like sound of her Indian harmonium remains an integral part of her songs. Its hazy emissions cling about the compositions like a fog, and on tracks like “Colonel Mustard in the Billiards Room with Sheets of Acid” and “Sanitary iPad,” it creates a vaguely ominous drone reminiscent of John Cale’s contributions to The Velvet Underground’s druggiest tracks.

This mixture of tenderness and barbarism makes Last Year’s Savage a particularly exhilarating entry in Shilpa Ray’s catalogue, one in which she’s freed herself to explore the more melodic possibilities within her aesthetic space without becoming tame or boring. It’s an ideal entry point into the catalogue of one of the most unique singers and songwriters doing her damndest to keep rock ‘n’ roll relevant in the 21st century.

Links: Shilpa Ray - Northern Spy

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