It’s a mystery how and why Cornershop squandered its cultural capital, critical acclaim, and commercial relevance after 1997’s groundbreaking When I Was Born for the 7th Time, which was tapped by more than one publication as the best-of-the-year, ahead of even Radiohead’s OK Computer. Not only did that album create a dynamic, worldly sound that didn’t simply give in to exotic novelty, but it also augured even bigger things for the future of multi-cultural pop. No one expected it would take the likes of M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend to make good on that promise, not Cornershop itself. Rather than building on one of the era’s most distinctive albums, core members Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres followed up 7th Time with the head-scratching decision to release a disco-funk redux project under the name Clinton, basically killing the Cornershop brand instead of growing it. Ever contrarians, the two have pretty much redefined their act as retro-rock reinventors instead of continuing on their original path to becoming true innovators.
While Singh and Ayres have clearly gained in proficiency and musicianship over the years, they’ve also lost a little bit of the edge to their inimitable vision, an iffy bargain that keeps Cornershop from fully standing out like it once did. Originally released in the UK last July, their latest, Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, is a solid effort like the Clinton foray and the bombastic classic rocker Handcream for a Generation before it, but it lacks the ingenuity that their mid-1990s work evoked. The group’s ’70s fixation is obvious from the get-go on “Who Fingered Rock’n’Roll?”, a swaggering Stones rave-up that’s heavy on attitude, but a little light in original inspiration. That the squiggle of sitar at the beginning gives way to Singh’s best attempt at a Roger Daltrey-like howl seems symbolic of Cornershop’s current trajectory, swapping their signature pop iconoclasm for an arena-scaled bluster.
The identity crisis of Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast has less to do with the schizophrenic thrills of Cornershop’s best-known work and more with a surprising lack of individuality. Much of the album goes retro in a puzzlingly rote and even deferential way. While it might make some sense for the by-the-book remake of Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn” to be so reverent, the exceedingly long coda “The Turned on Truth (The Truth Is Turned On)” is really yet another cover of “Sweet Jane”, just with R&B-styled vocals and the slightest bit of sitar embellishment. On these tracks, the band seems to only go through the motions in revisiting its trademark sound, with the Indian elements appearing more as expected accents rather than a driving force in the mix.
Indeed, what makes the album as a whole all the more frustrating are the brilliant moments that not only recall the band’s best songs, but might actually one-up them. “The Roll of Characteristics (Of History in the Making)” is an epic romp, a funkier take on the Indian indie of Woman’s Gotta Have It and a more ambitious version of the catchiest fare of 7th Time. It’s a prime example of a Cornershop specialty, with its vaguely protest-pop vocals (“War ain’t nothing but a technical plip-plop”) delivered through fun but heady aesthetics. Better yet is the hybridity of “Free Love”, mixing and matching Punjabi vocals, Indian classical elements, rock instrumentation, and some electronic adornments so that the music gets its revolutionary message across even if you can’t understand the lyrics. And while the reggae experiment of “Operation Push” isn’t fully convincing, at least Cornershop’s mischievous, wildly creative side re-emerges, making an admirable attempt to draw the connections between British colonial outposts from the subcontinent to the Caribbean not just in the lyrics, but also in musical idioms. In these cases, Cornershop finds the sweet spot between sounding global and not making exoticized caricatures of themselves, building on a formula they had once perfected and had seemingly lost.
All in all, Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast begs the question why Singh and Ayres are so fascinated in looking backwards to nostalgia rock when they’ve had their own trailblazing thing going all along. Then again, if there’s anything consistent to its long, often befuddling, but mostly rewarding career, it’s that Cornershop has never been hemmed in or bothered with expectations, for better and for worse.