Women in indie rock tend to get classified as either cute unassuming types, banshees, or cartoons. With a few exceptions, they are always sexualized or judged against other “women in rock” as opposed to their male peers. Shilpa Ray may scream and wail, but she is not merely a banshee or some other she-devil who will send indie boys shaking beneath their shaggy bangs. In her promo pictures, she is neither tarted up nor scuzzed out like a rugged rock diva; she just looks like someone in a DIYed t-shirt making music, so there goes the cartoon classification too. Hearing the first 30 seconds of debut Teenage and Torture will make the listener realize Ray is not the retiring sort. A veteran of relentless New York gigging, Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers’ debut is primed to be mark her as that rarity: A credible artist, period (no condescending “female” preface here).
Ray possesses a range that ties her to many different alt/punk reference points, but also presents her as talented enough to be very much her own artist. Teenage and Torture unfurls a range of styles. Songs like “Venus Shaver” will marry unpredictable elements, such as blues lilt and ‘80s torch song buildup, to touching results. Opener “Hookers” comes with a bluesy ruggedness and secretly beguiling chorus, while the next track, “Heaven in Stereo”, starts out sounding like the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love” being plunged into a blender. What results is a rich pop concoction. Lesser artists could risk making the chorus of “it shakes shakes shakes in my heart” come off as a Karen O. derivation, but Ray has too much power, heart, and conviction for such comparisons to ever stand. The only other time Teenage and Torture really recalls any recent New York crazes is on “Erotolepsy”, which gives the Strokes a much sharper set of teeth.
Softer songs offer as many, if not more, pleasures than the fast and fierce ones. “Genie’s Drugs” is the album’s centerpiece, the moment when proceedings turn almost pretty. The song has touches of doo-wop, and is one of a few moments throughout Teenage and Torture in which Ray drops her guard and lets us peer into the heart behind the staggering display of vocal chords. It happens again on “Requiem in a Key I Don’t Know”, which pauses briefly in Velvet Underground-era New York before heading all the way back to the Cafe Society days.
Personally, listening to Teenage and Torture brings to mind two particular Shilpa Ray live performances: One with her previous, more harmonium-heavy band Beat the Devil, the other a last minute solo slot, opening for Grinderman on its most recent US tour. The former performance came as part of the River to River Festival at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, and thus the audience consisted of a fair amount of irritated Pizzeria Uno diners and bewildered tourists unappreciative of harmoniums and bluesy wailing. The latter performance offered Ray a far more engaged crowd, the remaining skeptics done in by an effortless Etta James cover. Seeing such a performance gave indication that Ray was finally about to arrive, and with Teenage and Torture, she has done so with conviction to spare. Now, if the rest of the world wises up and listens, we’ll have a new rock hero on our hands.