by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)
The average New Yorker might not realize it, but they've probably encountered Shilpa Ray. On weekends, when Lower East Side staple Pianos transforms from a venue into a club, the crowd spans many New York types, transitioning from a group thick with rompers, beards, denim jackets, and tattoos to one flush with wealthier, younger Manhattanites swarming in from the madness of Alphabet City to let loose and dance. In the middle of it all is Ray, working the door and making sure no one gets into ticketed events without paying. Or, in her words, “I’m charging 8 bucks/to go to hell/it’s straight up the stairs.”
This sentiment can be heard on “EMT Police and the Fire Department,” the most immediate song from Ray’s appropriately titled new album, Door Girl. It’s not as though Ray suddenly decided that working the door at Pianos is a circumstance rife for making art; she’s been both an artist and a door girl for years. Instead, Door Girl is the grand culmination of half a lifetime in this truly uncommon combination of roles, one that gives its creator an ideal vantage point from which to detail the complexities of life in New York City, that ubiquitous Big Apple that 20-somethings eternally dream of moving to. Though Ray has lived here for 17 years (and spent her pre-college years right nearby in New Jersey), she’s not painting pretty pictures of the city; Door Girl depicts New York as a collage of horrors, anxieties, and frustrations, ranging from the personal to the grandly political. It’s a thesis statement for anyone living paycheck to paycheck (or less) in a storied American city overrun with garbage, gentrification, wage gaps, and public transit.
If ‘70s punk bands like Blondie and The Ramones made CBGB-era New York feel like a wellspring of creativity and livelihood, Door Girl fits more into the modern tradition of the city’s youngest inhabitants feeling hopeless, broke, and gross. There hasn’t yet quite been an album that’s this honest and real about how awful living in New York can be; how can you afford this place, but where else can you start a career and be entertained whenever you want? “You wanna know where my heart went?/My heart went straight to making the rent,” Ray snarls over the ugly, searing midsection of the hip-hop-inspired “Revelations of a Stamp Monkey,” which would sound like garage rock’s answer to Run-DMC even if it didn’t boast a guest verse from rapper Skurt Vonnegut. The smoky, slow, doo-wop inspired “Add Value Add Time” opens with the bleakly hilarious salvo “Work work work/die die die/MTA asks/add value, add time” before twice referencing Whole Foods as a symbol of gentrification. The latter reference alone, “they broke my dreams/and built a Whole Foods on top of it instead,” feels like a direct shoutout to Williamsburg, the looming symbol of Brooklyn gentrification.
Ray often sings with astounding clarity on Door Girl, ensuring her messages, whether revolutionary or oddly romantic, land with a spike even when the music is at its dimmest. “After Hours” matches an early soul backdrop with a love-hate analysis of living in New York: sure, this city is littered with garbage and Ray has pissed herself on a late night way north in Manhattan, but how could she not love it? When narrating a tale of a love lost on the similarly smoky “Rockaway Blues,” she paints a portrait of Rockaway Beach that’s vague enough to leave some details to the listener’s imagination, yet specific enough to betray where her heart lied during that time. Even when she’s lamenting topics that aren’t uniquely personal to her, such as the rape culture and slut-shaming takedown on “Manhattanoid Creepazoids,” her lucid, bluesy singing and her band’s velvet soul arrangements ensure a direct conversation with listeners.
Not that it’s all soul and blues: “Morning Terrors Nights of Dread” has the sort of guitar slapback that might more frequently appear in the clean, sunrise-like guitar music of early this decade. This, a tale of the anxiety that the rocket-speed pacing and absurd expenses of New York living can brew in a person, is one of a handful of Door Girl moments on which Ray truly lets her voice fly off the walls; over its final minute and a half, her voice gradually escalates from its usual sharpness to a more distorted growl, guitars joining in suit with a transition from calm to intangibly chaotic. Then, of course, there’s “EMT Police and the Fire Department,” which is through and through a punk song, especially compared to how gently Door Girl usually approaches its subject matter. The usual culprits are in play—rats, cockroaches, sweaty Pianos crowds—but Ray straight-up narrates their appearances for the first minute and a half. After this initial stretch, the song segues from a collection of droning, ambiguous sounds into a furious, dissonant ripper, the overall feeling not too far from what everyone rightly freaked out about earlier this year when Priests released Nothing Feels Natural. Yuppies? New York heat? New Jersey scapegoating? Bad drinks? Drunken racism and misogyny? A Howl reference? Check. It’s all there. Though “EMT Police and the Fire Department” is a sonic anomaly as Door Girl goes, it’s an amazing distillation of New York’s insanity, told by someone who’s been surrounded by it for almost two decades.
Ray’s been here for a while, and although she’s got her fair share of anger and disdain, it hasn’t yet been enough to make her leave. At no point on Door Girl does she ever explicitly say that she dislikes working the door at Pianos or thoroughly hates living in New York. Sure, her stories here—the gentrification recounted on “You’re Fucking No One” and “Add Value Add Time,” the sheer exhaustion she feels as she watches random New Yorkers use alcohol, on “Revelations of a Stamp Monkey,” to temporarily forget about things as specific as the NYPD’s murder of Eric Garner or the murder of two NYPD officers in Bed-Stuy—explore New York’s many blatant, overwhelming problems, but Ray never claims that these issues invalidate the highly sought-after New York experience. It’s reasonable to claim that the majority of young New Yorkers, whether millennial transplants or slightly older folks who have made a long-term home here but can’t save any money doing so, suffer these exact same frustrations.
Yet your average New Yorker is likely to rationalize staying here for the long-term, even if it’s completely infeasible on many financial and emotional levels (Stereogum's Tom Breihan said it best in a recent interview with Zola Jesus: ‘Every time I have to go to New York for work, I just want to walk around and be like, “You don’t have to do this to yourselves.”’). Door Girl is an album that’s especially fit for these New Yorkers; via her art, Ray is telling fellow residents, I’ve made it, I’m still making it, and so can you. She’s not endorsing it or even recommending it; she’s reminding listeners that their battles are not theirs alone, and that they’re fully real no matter how intangible and distant they can seem. “I’m still sticking around/for the good times to come,” she croons on the chorus of Door Girl’s empty, distraught closer, “My World Shatters by the BQE.” It’s the last thing she sings on the album, her voice gradually overpowered what one can imagine might be the “trucks screaming past [her] door” that she references at the start of the song. In other words, The Big Apple: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.