Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation

Handcream for a Generation
Beggar's Banquet

This album arrived with so much baggage it might as well have been Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein. Critics won’t tell you, but Tjinder Singh is our hero. We all want to be him, and we’re all a little pissed off that we don’t get to be, but we don’t let our jealousy get in the way. Mostly. But hey, we’re fair: all we want is for him to restore our faith in intelligent beautiful ironic multicultural asskicking rock and roll music. Is that too much to ask?

Anyway, the basic thesis of this review is this: Yes, Tjinder has delivered a great album in the face of this pressure, but that he’s done so in such a way to basically piss off all the critics who used to lick his boots. You know what that means: The big backlash. That, in my opinion, is the main reason for all the negative reviews you’re going to see all over the place. All I am going to urge is that we all take the long view here and stop judging Handcream for a Generation on the basis of what we thought it was going to be, and realize what it is: The Transitional Album.

Let’s define our terms here. The Transitional Album (TTA) is a calculated thing, only made by sensitive intellectual “artists”. It is designed to kill off all the bandwagoneers by going a completely brave new way. It stands in marked contrast to the Love Us Record, or LUR, which seeks to blow a band up by perfecting the formula that has already seemed to work in the past. This doesn’t imply “better” or “worse” — nothing is yuckier than a TTA that falls flat, and some of the best albums ever have been LURs. Some old-school examples: Springsteen’s Born to Run is a classic LUR, as is his Born in the USA, whereas Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska are very definitely TTAs. You can chart Prince’s career by the proportion of TTAs to LURs. It’s a great theory and I’m glad I came up with it.

Okay, back to Cornershop. We suspected Tjinder was pretty cool when Cornershop’s Hold on It Hurts first arrived back in 1994, but it was 1995’s Woman’s Gotta Have It that won our hearts. It was just about critic-proof. It had long Indian-flavored jams and shorter deceptively-simple rockish songs, it showed Singh to be a wordsmith of great talent and an effective (if limited) singer, and it flew in the face of all that was Britpop while still being at its core very British. We all held our breath at the thought of what Cornershop would come with next. Would it be a TTA? Or a big fat LUR?

When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, blew everyone away back in 1997 with all its beautiful paradoces: the savvy mix of Britpop heroics and Indianisme, its encyclopediac knowledge of rock music and its revolutionary politics, the way it swaggered while still sounding so humble. It was that rarity among records, an LUR that sounded like a TTA, and we were geeked for it huge-time. One minute, on “Funky Days Are Back Again”, you’re doing “the airplane wheel” (that disco move where you spin your hands around each other like an airplane wheel); the next, you’re trying to negotiate the 5/4 hip-hop of “Butter Yr Mind” — brill. He topped it all off with the cheekiest move in modern rock history: twitting the Beatles by covering their fake-Indian “Norwegian Wood” in Hindi.

But Tjinder broke faith with us by breaking up his band. It was all too much, he said, and suddenly Cornershop was dead. In its place, a band called Clinton, which was just Singh and Cornershop second-banana Ben Ayres. Their album, Disco and the Halfway to Discontent, was one of 2000’s main head-scratchers, a boogie-oogie-oogie record that was supposed to lead us all into the radical/humanist promised land by freeing our asses and minds. What were we to make of the new glitterball Tjinder? Judging by sales and critical support, not much. You’d think that we would have appreciated the absolute punk-rock move of turning an omni-pop band into a political dance machine. But no, we hated it, railed against it, gnashed our teeth and rent our garments: Why’dja do it, Tjinder? WHY?

I guess he was listening, because he un-broke-up Cornershop to make this album. Handcream starts with a Memphis soul groove raveup called “Heavy Soup”. It’s not really a song, because all it does is to warm us up for the album ahead; Chicago bluesman Otis Clay does the vocal duties, introducing us to each song we’re going to hear as if this is all an actual real live concert. Ballsy? Yes. Annoying? Slightly. Important? Absolutely. This is Tjinder Singh’s Stax tour of England, his Live at the Apollo. This is him letting go of the intellectual and embracing the soul.

One of the ways he does that here is to throw in everything that one is not supposed to do in today’s musical climate. Children’s choruses are cheesy and discredited, right? Well, that’s probably why he throws one in on the second track, “Staging the Plaguing of the Raised Platform”. What this song is all about, I don’t really know for sure-something about keeping the dope dope and the dope dope. I’ve heard that “the raised platform” is supposed to be musical artists who have a stage and a captive audience yet fail to do anything interesting or uplifting with it . . . but I don’t care, really, because it’s an easy-rocking number with a triple-violin attack and a real live children’s chorus singing along.

Sins against fashion are all over the record. “Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III” is basically Bachman Turner Overdrive on indie-oids, all big fat power chords and gospel singers wailing away in the background. Since it’s not very cool to have 14-minute guitar/sitar jams, that’s exactly what Cornershop delivers with “Spectral Mornings.” Interestingly, one of the guitarists on this track is Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, who contributes his less-is-more-or-at-least-you-better-hope-so- cause-less-is-all-you’re-gonna-get-and-it’s-pub-time ham-fisted power chords in the right speaker. More interestingly, the sitar on this record is played by Sheema Mukherjee; Anthony Saffery, one of the actual bandmembers, used to play sitar, but here he is strictly on guitar duty. What this means in general, I don’t know, but it translates into this being Cornershop’s least “Indian” sounding record.

What it largely sounds like is dance music. Clinton lives in the new remix of “People Power” and in the intriguing “The London Radar”, which incorporates disco stringswells and some kind of strange mix of airplane-protocol samples and made-up stuff about a trip to Genoa. Is this a G-8 protest anthem? Or are we just supposed to shake our asses? I’m not sure, actually, there is a lack of focus on both these tracks. But I dare you not to dance, and I dare you not to think. “Wogs Will Walk” works better on both counts — it’s a hot funk/soul track with some enigmatic lyrics comparing Asian progress to the speed of the World Wide Web. Or maybe it isn’t. Ah, hell, who knows.

The main movement here is summed up in the twin songs “Music Plus 1” and “Motion the 11”. Both have basically the same chorus, but go about things completely different ways: the former is a damned fine house track, complete with sweet piano break and cool phasing stuff, whereas the latter is a reggae jaunt graced by Jack Wilson and Kojak of the Nazarites. Nice juxtaposition, indeed. Just so you know — because I didn’t — “motioning the 11” is that dance move where you put your arms in the air and then wave them back and forth in that sexy club way. Both tracks are hot, and both will get you moving: the biggest reason to own this album is that your booty needs it. It’s a swinging sort of groovy album. Hell, even “Spectral Mornings” is a hell of a dance track.

Where Tjinder decided that telling everyone to “motion the 11” would be the basis for a musical and political revolution, I don’t know. But the phrase keeps popping up, along with “I understand guns in the A&R office”, which must be some kind of reference to the way rappers gently “persuade” label execs not to fuck with their shit. So Tjinder Singh feels that way, too? What, did David Byrne screw him over when they were signed to Luaka Bop? Hard to imaging Byrne as a cold-hearted company man . . . but an interesting image nonetheless, n’est-ce pas?

Ultimately, it’s a concept album, really, I guess, made to express Singh’s disapproval of the way modern music is handled. He’s calling for people to get together and motion the 11 together; he’s calling for artists to get more respect, and to respect themselves by doing the un-glamorous thing musically and lyrically; and he’s calling for music to be more spontaneous and live-sounding, like those old soul records he loves. And I love. I personally am not offended when the “Heavy Soup” music comes back as a reprise at the “end” of the album (there is an inconsequential bonus track called “Bonus Track”) — it’s just like the way James Brown used to have a theme song that announced him and played him out. Plus, it’s groovy, baby.

Difficult and easy, dance-y and indie, this is a TTA that works on just about every level I can think of. A lot of folks don’t think it’s as good as When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, and you know, whatever-they might be right, if that’s the way they think. But I think this one might end up proving to be more important and better-regarded in the long run, because it shows that Tjinder Singh is not content with going halfway to discontent, and that he’s willing to take chances for chances’ sake. Transitional albums rule, and this album rules too. But if you favor Born to Run over Darkness on the Edge of Town or Purple Rain over Around the World in a Day, then you better jump off the Cornershop bandwagon, because the ride’s gonna get a bit bumpier before it gets easier.

Me, I’m in it for the long haul. Me and Tjinder.