This is the third or fourth time I’ve tried to write a eulogy for Beat the Devil. Each of my previous attempts were abandoned by around the second paragraph, usually after I found myself implying that Beat the Devil was the greatest band to grace our ungrateful ears since The Beatles. Which is to say, I would get a little bit carried away. My over eagerness to call attention to Beat the Devil aside, the general sentiment of my previous attempts holds true: that Beat the Devil, with only a five song EP to their name, was one of the top five bands I have heard this decade. And the ironic tragedy of the band is that they will never be forgotten because they were never known to begin with.
I would classify Beat the Devil as a punk band, but they weren’t. Others would likely classify them as a folk band, but they weren’t. Some will swear that their primary debt lay to jazz, others would say eastern music, some will point to poetry as the main influence, and others will call them the heir to Billie Holiday. Beat the Devil’s great strength was that they were able to evoke all these influences but never boxed into any of them.
This inability to pigeonhole the band stems largely from their unlikely line up: bass, drums, and harmonium. A harmonium, to those uninformed (ie most people; you don’t see very many harmoniums in popular music) is sort of like a cross between a pipe organ and an accordion. In the context of Beat the Devil the harmonium provides a rhythmic drone. The harmonium was played by lead singer and daughter of Indian immigrants, Shilpa Ray. She is tiny, possesses a startlingly powerful voice and is one of the best lyricists in music today. Bass was provided by New York rock scene stalwart Mishka Shubaly. Drums were played by a Spinal Tap-esque revolving cast, the last and best of which was Mitchell King. The net effect these three is reminiscent Death From Above 1979, if only fronted by a Hindu version of Janis Joplin playing a harmonium. Which is to say, comparing them to other bands is a rather pointless affair.
There are only five songs on Beat the Devil’s self-titled EP. Each one is basically fantastic. Lead track “Plea Bargin” is darkly cinematic. “Shine In Exile” is absolutely gorgeous, finding warmth and beauty in loneliness and alienation; it is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. The almost equally fantastic “Raging Bull Blues” and the following track, “Idiot’s Guide” come closest to representing Beat the Devil’s live sound, with punky bass thunder and feedback filled squalls of noise. If the Ramones were official band of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, then EP closer, the lovely waltz “Green-eyed Monster, Grey-Eyed Fool”, would be played at the prom.
As good at the EP is (it’s fantastic), it really was not at all like Beat the Devil’s live show, which owed a debt to the confrontational No Wave. Much louder and heavier, Shilpa Ray’s gorgeous croon turned into a vicious howl, Mishka Shubaly’s bass became thicker and faster, and the drums grew exponentially more powerful and controlling. It was a completely different experience, but no less entrancing.
Beat the Devil broke up in May, with a debut album almost complete. A small circle of people in New York were aware and worshiped the band but beyond that, they were completely unknown. Please check out this band and then tell a friend. I do not think it is too early to start canonizing Beat the Devil as one of the great lost bands of what is turning out to be a great lost decade.
“Shine in Exile” [mp3]
Shilpa Ray now performs with her Happy Hookers [MySpace] and Mishka and Mitchell play as Ribs [MySpace] . They all should really find a way to release the album they recorded together (or at least send us a copy to check out!)