Teenage & Torture (Music Review)

Teenage & Torture

Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers - Teenage & Torture

Because I work on this blog in my spare time, and I spend some time figuring out what I think of something new, the earliest I can usually hope to review something is couple months after it is first released. But I managed to get my hands on a promo copy of the new album by Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers, so I have the pleasure of reviewing it early. Teenage & Torture is released today (January 18), but I can tell you now: This will be one of the standout albums of 2011.

Remember when The Yeah Yeah Yeahs first appeared on the scene? Karen O’s wild vocals grabbed everyone’s attention, especially when backed by the experimental noise of her band. Faced with pressure to “mature”, though, the band soon shifted to calm, less surprising songs, and the vocals were restrained to match. While they certainly remained good, they lost the brilliant edge that originally made them successful.

The Happy Hookers don’t seem likely to make the same mistakes. Shilpa Ray is the strongest female rock vocalist since Karen O, but those untamed vocals are already used in support of songs as complex as late-period Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Both she and her backing band seem perfectly capable of handling these conflicting elements. Shilpa Ray can modulate her scream to echo wild guitars one second, and slip into a soulful singing voice immediately afterwards. The Happy Hookers, meanwhile, are just as comfortable with classic soul and blues sounds as they are with noise that would do the Yeah Yeah Yeahs proud. They can meld these sounds naturally into the same song, doing justice to the wild swings in Ray’s voice. Best of all, the Happy Hookers’ goal is to put the spotlight on Ray’s throaty singing, letting her unique sound drive the songs. This is a showcase for Ray’s vocals because of her band, not in spite of it.
If Ray does have maturing to do, it’s the lyrics that need work. There are a lot of fascinating lines, and the distortion on the vocals keeps them slightly obscured. On a casual listen, they are fun and intriguing. If you take the time to decipher them, though, there will be some disappointments.
For example, “Stick It To The Woman” tells the story of a woman who goes shopping for solace after she catches her husband cheating on her. She is unsuccessful, finding “nothing here to match my brand new tits”. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but not a bad theme. However, Ray is so eager to confront the world’s evils that she slips in a verse reminding us that the stores’ clothes are made in “countries that Time Warner could own”. It’s a jarring departure from the feeling of the song, and it doesn’t fit the narrator (who, after all, is trying to sell those clothes). I hope that Ray will learn enough restraint to turn songs like this into effective parables.
Part of the reason this is frustrating is that Ray can write good lyrics. Some are brutal and to the point, as with the surprisingly catchy “The men don’t know what the little girl understands/ About the back door man/ Fuck the back door man/ Fuck you”. And “Erotolepsy” is an apparent love song that conveys her excitement by never letting up the pace as she rambles through almost-nonsensical lists.
Even some of those over-sincere songs work out well: “Venus Shaver” begins as a longing ode to a beautiful celebrity, but churning beneath her proclaimed “love” is the bitter realization that Ray herself will never measure up to this standard of beauty. By the song’s end, she is openly wishing “my burned browned fingers had the Midas touch” (Ray is Indian-American). It works mainly because the song’s closing, a repetition of “I change myself to look like you”, conveys an utter defeat that few singers ever manage.
Overall, Teenage & Torture is an incredibly catchy album. Both the singer and the band have a gift for memorable, hook-filled songs, but they stubbornly stick to a raw, jarring rock sound anyway. This gamble pays off; The results feel like hard-won successes rather than the lazy pop hits that they could have generated by playing it safe. If you like noisy rock, you owe it to yourself to check this out. Even if you don’t, give it a chance. You’ll find solid songs beneath the unfamiliar exterior.

Grade: A-

(Note: Since I said that this is a promo copy, I guess I should make it clear: I got this from a local music store, and there was no promotional agreement with Shilpa Ray or her label. Unless I say otherwise, it’s safe to assume that anything I review was chosen by me, or received as a gift from friends and family.)

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