Leicester, England’s prolific Cornershop launched its career with the buzzy In the Days of Ford Cortina, a four-song EP, at the beginning of 1993 and hasn’t bothered to look back. (Or, judging by the deluge of singles and EPs the group released that same year, for the studio exit door, either.) Led by brothers Tjinder (vocals/bass) and Avtar (guitar) Singh with three others, including self-described “token honky” Dave Chambers on drums and sitar/keyboard player Anthony Saffrey, this remarkable band has grown immensely through the recording process and has survived the suffocating, fickle and often dim-witted adoration heaped upon it by the notoriously shallow British pop music press.
In the Days of Ford Cortina isn’t a pretty effort, but it demonstrates the outfit’s knowledge of traditional Indian stylings (illustrated on the flute-and-sitar-rich “Waterlogged”) as well as its ability to play distortion-laden punk rock (“Moonshine”). Of the other short-players released by the quartet in 1993, the strongest by far is the four-song Lock, Stock and Double-Barrel, a screaming, pounding little masterpiece of youthful, anger-soaked sloppiness. A reprise of the previously released “England’s Dreaming,” written in tribute to author Jon Savage’s new wave history of the same title, opens the disc with aplomb in a disjointed, discordant three-and-a-half-minute punk puzzle (with a Hindi count-off, no less) whose pieces joyously don’t exactly fit together. “Trip Easy” drapes sitar over an uneasy psychedelic foundation, while “Breaking Every Rule Language English” pokes wry fun at Asian assimilation and acceptance in Great Britain. Lock, Stock and Double-Barrel was appended to the US edition of the first album.
Hold on It Hurts is a politically charged popfest, ten tracks (fifteen in the US) of noisy delights that meld incisive social commentary (“You Always Said My Language Would Get Me Into Trouble”) with a firm hold on British post-punk. From the opening drive of “Jason Donovan/Tessa Sanderson” to the earnest “Where D’U Get Your Information,” Hold on It Hurts upholds its aggression and intelligence. The album’s forward motion is interrupted occasionally, but to very strong effect. “Counteraction” is a straight-up Indian pop tune free of any outright Western influence, and the narrative “Tera Mera Pyar” tells the story of a self-obsessed Indian film star. The combination of incongruous styles may appear unappealing on paper, but the songs blend as well as the ingredients of a smooth highball, one that’s a lot more potent than it tastes. Hold on It Hurts is brilliant. (Which can’t exactly be said of the unlisted track in which an American trucker croons a country recipe for ground beef hash.)
Following two EPs built around album tracks, Cornershop signed a major-label deal and had to consider the challenge of America. The group’s response was the relatively slick and very different Woman’s Gotta Have It. Many of the tracks are longer than any in the band’s past; the record leans more toward Indian pop than western rock. When the album fixes on rock stylings, the results abandon straightforward aggression-laden concision for ponderous expositions (“Roof Rack”) or choppy looseness (the Fall-like “Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu”). “Jansimram King” sticks closest to Cornershop’s previous pounding form, but still demonstrates a new level of sophistication. Like Hold on It Hurts, Woman’s Gotta Have It is recommended, but for very different reasons. The Eastern-oriented “6 A.M. Jullander Shere,” “My Dancing Days Are Done” and “7:20 A.M. Jullander Shere” are easily its most enchanting and captivating tracks.
The punk elements are completely gone on When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, replaced by electronica, hip-hop and trip-hop touches which Cornershop blend into their Eastern-indie pop for a unique whole. Unexpected samples and electronic instruments butt up against sitars in the service of the catchiest songs Singh has yet written. The loose, sometimes goofy but always extraordinarily creative album plays like a truer spiritual successor to 3 Feet High and Rising than anything De La Soul has managed. “Sleep on the Left Side” and the magnificent “Brimful of Asha” are among the best one-two leadoffs of the ’90s, while “We’re in Your Corner” and “Good Shit” are nearly as good. Potential filler like the dazed instrumental “Butter the Soul” ends up being essential to the flow of the album. Born for the Seventh Time appropriately concludes with a Punjabi language version of “Norwegian Wood,” putting an even greater Eastern slant on the song that originated Indian/western crossover music. Very good shit indeed.
Bands faced with following up great artistic leaps forward generally react in one of two ways — they go further down that creative limb (the Clash, Radiohead), or become paralyzed with inertia (My Bloody Valentine). Cornershop tried a third option, recording the follow-up to Born for the Seventh Time under the name Clinton. The potentially shrewd move got the band back into the studio but relieved much of the pressure of having to deliver a sequel to their acknowledged masterwork. If the results are good, everyone’s happy; if they aren’t, it was all just a lark and not meant to be taken seriously. In that light, Disco & the Halfway to Discontent gets the job done — it’s a minor album for sure, but it works as a good-spirited, mildly political time-waster. Clinton is more beat and dance-oriented than Cornershop, and a few of the tracks run out of inspiration long before they end, but this decent work allowed Cornershop to try something different without risking their credibility.
Unfortunately, the next proper Cornershop album, Handcream for a Generation, feels more like a sequel to Disco than to Born for the Seventh Time, and a very bad one at that. Handcream focuses almost entirely on energetic grooves, proving that all the momentum in the world is worthless if it’s not headed in a specific direction. Track after track chugs along endlessly while Singh chants bullshit that he hasn’t even attempted to make sound meaningful (no matter how many times the phrase “people power in the disco hour” gets repeated, it’s still going to be nonsense, so shut up about it). When it finally ends, what follows is a different groove of equal merit. The only memorable track is “Staging the Plaguing of the Raised Platform” — a blatant rewrite of “Brimful of Asha” that at least sounds like the product of thought and effort. Lack of personality is the rest of the album’s biggest problem — any group of numbskulls can construct aimless dance tracks, but there’s only one Cornershop, and it’s a drag to hear them farting around like this. Noel Gallagher adds guitar to “Spectral Mornings,” a 14-minute track that fails in its evident goal of recapturing the entrancing vibe of “7:20 A.M. Jullander Shere.” Handcream for a Generation is a huge disappointment.