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Raging with Uncompromise – Shilpa Ray’s Astonishing “Portrait of a Lady”

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One day in the fall of 2009, after some fifteen years plus or minus spent chasing that lunatic chimera the great – or hell even just decent – American novel I found myself at the age of fifty-three in that Smithsonian of bookstores called Powell’s staring at the floor-to-ceiling wall of newly-published fiction and understood to my utmost depths how truly quixotic and delusional that pursuit was (a conclusion further fed by the bare fact that the last thing the shrinking novel-reading public needed was more perspective coming from a straight cis middle-aged white guy from Portland). The universe in its eerie and inscrutable wisdom apparently agreed as within a couple months the opportunity to write for this plucky esteemed publication fell into my lap like something between a cherished scrap of manna and a foul ball. My pen and I took that invitation and never glanced back, regret left to the dogs and my original and thereby truest passion – music – was thrust to the fore. And now here I am over a dozen years later faced with this latest full-length from Brooklyn artist Shilpa Ray, seething beautiful unflinching and extraordinary, and to a weird extent, meaning I can’t even say exactly why, it feels as if all the writing I’ve done for SEM has been leading to this release. I gotta get this right, which…

…means I probably shouldn’t set off toward that goal by slinging clichés but damn it if Shilpa Ray doesn’t sing as if her life in some truly visceral way depends upon it. There’s soul there’s anger there’s a deeply wounded but take-no-shit self-tenderness but above all else there’s life, or, no, excuse me, there is LIFE! Roaring at the edges (whether loudly or more quietly it’s still a roar), brimming in the bloodstream, marking its presence, its absolute here now existence with a zest and a thunderous belief that would make the gods were there gods shudder and quake and possibly piss themselves at the prospect of their own irrelevance. And while there’s a not altogether errant reflex here to veer at least momentarily into a Pitchforkian tangent and attempt to situate, triangulate or otherwise speculate as to Ray’s place along the sprawling, (thankfully) ever-diverse current-day gender spectrum, it doesn’t seem this album’s driving context, it’s not necessarily – or, one feels, primarily – what explains Shilpa Ray’s power. That power explains itself, and does so unequivocally throughout.

Which isn’t to say her platform per se is fierce but rather that fierceness (the intensity of her talent, its delivery) is her platform. ‘No fucks to give’ is our starting point on Portrait of a Lady, released April 29th on Northern Spy. Ray takes the reins from there and leads us with something like a fire laser vision into the broader, if still very sharply drawn, center of what’s become – well, OK, has always been – our fundamentally flawed humanity where the one and only response is an unrepentant, control-taking ‘Deal with it.’ That’s half our context right there. The other, more Portrait-specific half, is Ray’s encounter with the work of Nan Goldin, the renowned NYC-based photographer whose personal experience of trauma and sexual assault during her reputation-making years around the No Wave scene in the late 70s deeply informs – and brings a strength of focus to – this record’s rage. It’s an important piece of what’s at stake here and speaks its own volumes from inside this particular maelstrom.  All that said and duly noted, we feel there’s only one appropriate way to address the enormity of what’s before us and that’s to just cut to the fucking chase straightaway.

Not least due this country’s particular (and, we would posit, hypocritical) distaste for the ‘C’ word but far more – or so we hope – because it’s just such an astonishing track, the surging, indignant, breathtaking “Manic Pixie Dream Cunt” will, whether fair or not (it is, it isn’t), initially claim the lioness’s share of this album’s attention. Grabbing the listener by the lapels and singing its gust of heat directly into their face, MPDC suggests what it might have sounded like had the force of nature that was Bette Midler in her brashest prime instead been a wholly confrontational punk rock force of nature. However much it courts controversy by its prominent use of ‘that’ word, the fact is that wouldn’t matter for shit if the track was anything less than the veritable study in rock’n’roll primacy that it is, complete with pounding Jerry Lee piano, its blast furnace guitar assault, its barely-but-precisely controlled mayhem. Fact is the thing’s a banger, a belter, a fucking party maker, coming at you with the hurricane gale of a modern-day feminist icon (she is, she isn’t) reclaiming the word while planting her flag with its whittled-sharp pole deep in to the patriarchy’s smug bloated heart, raging with uncompromise. Iconoclastic to the the hilt, then, seething as if with a lust for impatience, the song also illustrates with startling, concise clarity that power of which we speak and how it doesn’t so much seem aspired to anymore but rather simply resides in Ray like, say, shyness might in others. Which isn’t to suggest it wasn’t hard come by – when is it not for women in our culture – but rather that, from the sound of it, the sheerness of it, she by now wears that power like the rest of us wear our skin.

And now here we are some 800 words in and to some extent we could end it there if all we hoped to be definitive about was the artistic (slash political, there’s always a ‘slash political’ and make no mistake) temperament of the musician at hand but oh so grievous would be the sin since the truth is, while anger – emotional, sharp-eyed, take-no-prisoners – is often as not the glowing nuclear core energizing Portrait‘s dozen tracks, to leave it there would ignore the diversity at play, Ray’s command of craft as a songwriter in the rock idiom – and this is a rock album down to its socks – never having been at a more feverishly precise pitch. Funny, then, that it all begins with a dream.

“Straight Man’s Dream,” glistening, hypnotic, even a bit icily – if deceptively – seductive, sets forth at the outset at least a couple of the many elements that make up this record’s template: a canny lyrical forthrightness and an invincible sense of humor that splits its target like an ax through parched white firewood. In this case the two are woven tightly around each other as the singer disembowels the reputation of the one justice that more than any other can make us believe an ‘R’ needs to be inserted between the second and third letters of the acronym SCOTUS. Which isn’t to mention the inveterate melodic drift of the thing as it floats through your consciousness as if on a summer’s breeze. And that’s what we mean when we say ‘craft’ and it’s on display everywhere, generously so.

With a similar pop translucence, “Heteronormative Horseshit Blues,” exuding a feel not too far askew from a classic teenage 50s ballad – that geetar interlude mid-song could’ve been borrowed from Hank Marvin’s ghost – boasts those qualities just cited while adding another to them, in this case the sly flagrant way Ray can overlay not just the political (if you will) with the personal but as well the historical and the biological and end up with a mash-up that doesn’t simply mesh into a beautifully coherent whole but invites you to sway along to it in a state of blissful abandonment as the fullness of it all sinks in. And indeed this is one of Portrait of a Lady‘s most effective delivery systems, the poison pill tucked inside a tasty pastille, sweet and deathly bitter but not quite bittersweet as that would require at least a gesture of cie la vie acceptance of the status quo and that is simply not forthcoming, not on this album anyway. We’re past that.

Hence do we have both “Cry for the Cameras” coming at us like a Sandi Shaw weeper before nimbly eviscerating our TMZ-soaked media landscape and the culture that props it up with a sanctimonious schadenfreude, and the caustic if transfixing shimmer of the last track “Last Wave,” sounding to the cadence of a lament which it is to a certain extent as indeed a suggestion of seeming regret hovers overhead like a tremor in the air but you won’t find a note of sadness nor forgiveness in that air but instead a hint of resignation buoyed by a quiet tidal wave of relief. The complexity inherent inside the tension of those somewhat ‘gentler’ tracks is borne out more broadly across the album as a whole, further – and once and for fucking all, we should hope – underlining the stark immediacy of a basic fact herein: this is an artist at the peak of their powers (that word again) and seeing as how they were pretty much intensity personified to begin with, well, let that lead you to whatever conclusion you like but as for us, as evidenced by everything else on this record, we’re left reeling inside the belief that Portrait of a Lady may well be the most compelling, the most significant album to rock the rock world since HorsesLest you think we overreach, just listen.

“Lawsuits and Suicide,” rocking with a relentless edge from the very off, skewers with a surgical, fuck you I’ve had it  humor the all-too-typical lash-out option men turn to when cornered by their own bullshit, the absolutely dead shot and rollicking “Male Feminist” destroys that mostly squishy oxymoron with an Iggy-esque glee while, with an aggro country-rock swing, “Charm School for Damaged Boys,” comic and macabre and precise on both counts, will, we swear, have you dancing madly about as if you’re actually pulverizing the skulls and bones of the Skull and Bones Society happily into dust beneath your feet.

Then there’s “Bootlickers of the Patriarchy” (if you’ve not copped to it yet, pulling punches is not a Ray forte) and “Same Sociopath,” two tracks that fold the – relatively – pacific and the storming into each other to an utter beguiling effect, and by ‘beguiling’ we may indeed mean ‘devastating.’ The former, its wrath directed post-Kavanagh/Barrett toward the mewling centrist Susan Collins and any others with her chromosomal make-up that occupy the same spineless niche and whose action or lack thereof now all but guarantees women in this country decades of anguish and life-altering pain, spends its first half as a bluesy torch song ballad, Ray laying out her case inside the haunt of a late night after-hours vibe, all shimmery pathos and reverb, the effect almost a lulling one, the lyrics, nothing less than prosecutorial poetry, notwithstanding. Then, precisely half way through and in gloriously predicable fashion, the beast is unleashed and every stanza just torch-sung is now torched as if with accelerant, the musicians behind her here flipping a switch seemingly labeled ‘bar band nitroglycerin.’ “Same Sociopath,” on the other hand, with its synth strings and gentle electric piano, is initially nearly liquid in its demeanor, a bit ethereal even but by all means of course don’t let that fool you. Thirty seconds in Ray steps to the mic just as the low persistent thump of a bass drum kicks up a rhythm like a jumped-up heartbeat, and while it never quite dives headlong into the ramparts – there is in fact a notable pop gloss to the song, the wonderfully savage guitar work aside – the simmer factor and the crushing exposé nature of the thing, Shilpa’s verve and cunning, though flecked with regret, on as full display as anywhere, ensures its place on one of the strongest tracklists in living memory.

As per that phrase ‘flecked with regret,’ certainly what helps elevate Portrait of a Lady into the echelon of the untouchable – there won’t be a better rock record released this year and we don’t hold high hopes for 2023 – is the inextinguishable touch of direct experience that animates these songs with the fever of the personal. And while without a doubt it’s a matter of some academic dullness to turn again toward that tired axiom ‘the personal is the political,’ Shilpa Ray makes it stingingly clear that it’s no less true than it’s ever been and in fact won’t ever not be true. That that message comes packed inside a document of such lasting, full-on rock’n’roll delirium, produced (by Ray and Jeff Berner) with a precise gem-like abandon, is just our stroke of lucky-to-be-alive good fortune.

As for that aspirational wish I brought to this review, it’s not really a case, is it, of getting it ‘right’ (I did, I didn’t) since the record as an entity, as a living piece of art, is well beyond whatever set of criteria one could use to determine such a result. By any metric Portrait of a Lady from the very first note turns all that into vain nonsense. The album, in other words, could give a fuck what I think which means this whole flurry of words was unleashed simply for your sake. And whereas we avidly hope you take them to heart we’re far more hopeful that, for the sake of your rock and roll soul, you take them to your nearest record store be it online or down the street and buy yourself a copy of this album in whatever format you fancy. This record bristles with everything we need right now, especially – and to give it literally the last word – power.

[we suggest you don’t hesitate and get Portrait of a Lady here]