(Northern Spy, 2015)
You’ll hear a lot of names dropped when Shilpa Ray is discussed: Nick Cave is her most famous backer (she sang backup for him on tour), and who’s gonna argue with Saint Nick? Points of stylistic reference also include PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Karen O, Debbie Harry, et al. See? Ray’s the latest in a line of amazing shitkicking female artists and deserves to be mentioned among them (and let me say that I wish the line was much longer). I don’t want to focus on all that though, so I’ll get it out of the way here. Are you new to Shilpa Ray, and you want a starting point? There you go. You’re welcome.
That said, this is a pretty insanely powerful debut. It’s not a proper, “welcome me to the big leagues of paid musician” type of debut – Ray’s been knocking around for a while, most specifically with her group Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers (yeah, good name). As such, she knows her way around wailing her performances in the face with a metaphorical baseball bat, and she certainly does her fair share of that here on Last Year’s Savage. Her instrument of choice is a harmonium, and she’s got a great backing band, at times reminiscent of – duh – the Bad Seeds. (Not all the time though.) She’s Indian American. She’s actively feminist. There, boxes ticked – mix it all together, and there’s this blues-punk Ella Fitzgerald madwoman who is making refreshingly angry – and startlingly beautiful at times – music for people who are totally giving up and totally not giving up at the same time. ’Cause we’re all in the shit together. Rile us, Shilpa. Rile us.
Last Year’s Savage is a fed-up screed, let’s not kid ourselves. It stumbles over graves and sticks middle fingers in faces, although the middle fingers were clearly hacked off from those whose faces they’re now stuck into. Ray pulls zero punches, and her anger and disgust and sadness and anger and disgust and righteous fury circle around each other in a cyclonic blur. She subverts gender roles with ease and disdain, and hers is decidedly the biggest dick in the room at all times. When she shouts, walls crumble. When she croons, hearts break. Either way, you’re in for a fucking ride.
I’m gonna shut up and let her do her thing for a minute. Here’s the video for “Nocturnal Emissions.”
Yeah, “Shilpa Ray makes music like a dog biting an electric fence.” —The Village Voice
(I wish I had written that.)
There’s an intense sexual undercurrent in Ray’s music, obviously, and a feral intensity which is let off its leash on songs like the headlong “Moksha.” There’s a clear playfulness too, like on the alternate-reality pop hit “Shilpa Ray on Broadway,” which is positively Strokes-y in its execution. But the best is when she does it all in one song, wrenches hearts and smashes faces, like on “Pop Song for Euthanasia” or “Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room.” Or, on my personal favorite (and oh my god I’m totally embedding a video of it below) “Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp” – get past the title, please, I know it’s more awesome than most other bands’ actual songs – she’s alternately ferocious and weary. Here, she shreds through the first half of the song like the Jerry Lee Lewis of the harmonium, sprinting and belting and bringing the noise. Then, the entire thing crashes to a fraction of the pace, and Ray breathlessly intones “Oh how I wish my parents sent me to Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp.” Don’t take my word for it:
So here’s the first entry in all the year-end lists for all you music writers out there – but that doesn’t even matter, because if you miss this, it’s on you. I’m telling you now, and if you screw this up, I can’t help you – you’re going to look like an asshole when the time comes. Understand, this is the pathway out of your malaise – Last Year’s Savage is the gleaming open door to evolving beyond stupidity. This album is going to make you angry – and in a good way. Think of it this way – when I jog, I always try to run angry, because if I’m pissed at something, it makes me go faster and I feel better about myself. The music I’m listening to helps that. This music will help that – it will make you “run angry” every day, in all situations. So thank God for Shilpa Ray. She’s saving all of us from boring music.
RIYL: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, The Walkmen