Were you drawn to Cornershop's left-field 1997 hit "Brimful of Asha" because it sounded like nothing in your record collection or because it sounded like everything in your record collection condensed down to five and a half minutes? That's the question these polyglot London-based zanies have made a career out of asking by crafting expansive, wildly allusive albums that link scrappy guitar pop, traditional Indian music, French disco and scratchy '70s funk while making deceptively sober observations about global geopolitics and local culture's ability to survive an ever-shrinking world.
When I Was Born for the 7th Time, Cornershop's third album and the one that housed "Brimful of Asha," arrived at a good time for asking that type of question, Beck having cleared the way for mix-and-match pop the year before with Odelay and a booming economy giving folks the wherewithal to feel warm and fuzzy about people on the other side of the world; back then it actually seemed like we wanted to be challenged by our radios. But what about today, a time when single-cell rock is making a big comeback and global geopolitics aren't the Carnival Cruise they were five years ago? Will the new Cornershop album, Handcream for a Generation, lure a similar audience, or have "Brimful" fans retreated into the warm folds of the latest Nickleback single because it seems like that's the type of thing Donald Rumsfeld might do? The members of Cornershop don't seem sure themselves: "Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III," Handcream's effervescent lead single, scales back the weighty social criticism and tackles '70s arena-rock excess instead, front man Tjinder Singh mocking the "overgrown super-shit" with a guitar tone deliberately lifted from some lost BTO B-side. Elsewhere they seem to sidestep explicit content altogether, "Music Plus 1" pounding like early Daft Punk and "Spectral Mornings" unfurling its acid-rock fever dream over 15 minutes of Noel Gallagher-assisted guitar wankery.
Yet the more you listen, the more you get the sense that Singh hasn't cooled off, he's just dug deeper into his definition of "political music." So "Staging the Plaguing of the Raised Platform" is either about toppling the president or outlawing drum risers; "Wogs Will Walk" unpacks the World Wide Web; "People Power" exudes the same dancing-as-revolution bonhomie the band outlined on Disco and the Halfway to Discontent, the goofy disc it made as Clinton in 2000. Like the cavalcade of talking heads that have invaded our living rooms since 9/11, the music whips by in a blur of nationalities and forms, melodies and rhythms, and often more quickly than you can pay attention. Singh's as interested as he always has been in your record collection; he just knows he might have to trick you into letting him at it.
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