There are moments on Shilpa Ray’s new album Door Girl in which the singer-songwriter’s perspective feels forced, her point-of-view too specific. When she chains her anecdotes to specific city blocks it can feel exclusive and alienating. She is writing about a niche experience, though. As an examination of working, living and loving in New York City, her self-centered focus is a necessary metaphor for city life. If you don’t make yourself the eye of the storm, you risk the damage of being caught in its winds.
With her commanding presence and a penchant for spectacle, Shilpa Ray is a perfect fit for the job of assessing life in New York City. The title makes reference to the time she spent working the door at Pianos on the Lower East Side. The album finds Shilpa Ray struggling to make ends meet and hold onto her humanity, succeeding and failing in equal measure. She does so with humility and humor.
Emotional exhaustion at the the hyper vigilance the city demands of its citizens is a constant presence on Door Girl. Suburban life is a constant temptation. Economic survival is at once menacing and banal. Compassion slips out the door before you know to miss it. “Don’t remember the last time that I helped someone/Don’t remember the last time I helped myself/Riding the tunnels with my horse blinders on/I’ve been standing clear of the closing doors like everyone else,” she muses over dreamy keys on “Add Value Add Time,” a meditation on the grind to stay afloat in the city. “Do you become a better person when you get out of here,” she asks. “Hudson Valley Real Estate says it’s so.” Staying in the city becomes a test of character. There is virtue in it, as the prayer bell that rings to mark the album’s opening will attest.
On much of the album, Ray bemoans the constant need to protect the precious little personal space the city provides. The urgent need to maintain physical and emotional distance that life in close quarters wears on her palpably. “Watch a man getting choked on TV/Crying help, saying I can’t breathe/I’m at work acting like it never bothered me/Stamping drunks, disease of humanity.” She rhymes in hip-hop cadence on “Revelations of a Stamp Monkey.” In the end, such attempts are futile. To be in the city is to be of it. It seeps into everything. “It doesn’t even faze me anymore,” she concludes.
The struggle is inevitable, intrinsic to working-class life in the city. For all it takes from her, it also gives her a visceral thrill to keep ahead of the curve. Notably absent from the narrative, however, are the very real consequences of a misstep, economic or otherwise. She can romanticize her survival, but only as long as she is surviving. She’s unapologetic about only addressing her own experience.
Door Girl is a straightforward rock n’ roll record and a worthy entry into the canon of New York records. Lou Reed’s New York, Patti Smith’s Horses, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s underrated Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015 and plenty of others can all be heard in Ray’s confident performances here. More importantly, their attitude can be felt in Ray’s playfulness. She takes ownership of the rock n’ roll conventions she takes up, whether it’s making reference to a line from Ginsberg’s Howl or cribbing Patti Smith’s yowl. “I want it easy,” she sings on “Morning Terrors Nights of Dread,” to which her (all male) chorus replies “She wants it easy.” It’s anything but, and it’s easy to suspect that Ray is actually fine with that. By accounting her experience in such specific terms, she underscores their universality.