England is a Garden
Ample Play Records
Cornershop are an inherently political band. Originally a four-piece centred around the Singh brothers, Tjinder (vocals and guitar) and Avtar (bass and vocals), Ben Ayres (guitars/keyboards) and David Chambers (drums) rounded out the quartet. Their very name is political, based on the English stereotype of South Asian people running corner stores, or corner shops in England. In 1996, they gained fame or notoriety, depending on your politics, when they took on Morrissey, who was beginning his long descent into racism, reactionarism, and general idiocy. The now-defunct Melody Maker (RIP) invited them to comment upon Morrissey’s racism and did a feature story on the band burning a press photo of the former Smiths’ frontman outside of his record company’s offices in London. In 1997, they released their third album, When I War Born Again for the Seventh Time, and they hit the stratosphere with ‘Brimful of Asha,’ the ubiquitous song of the year. It still gets plenty of play on classic rock radio and other places
For most people, ‘Brimful of Asha’ is all they know about Cornershop. And that’s a freaking shame. Their 2002 album, Handcream for a Generation is brilliant, a mashup of indie rock, laddisms, guitars, and funk, the album sees Noel Gallagher lay down some vicious guitars on the epic ‘Spectral Mornings,’ and then-Oasis bassist, Guigsy, lays down a thick and heavy bassline on ‘Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III.’
England is a Garden is their 11th album, and it’s a blistering masterclass is indie rock. It was released on Friday and I’ve had it on steady and heavy rotation since. Cornershop is essentially just the duo of Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres, and really has been for most of the 21st century. Now grizzled vets, Singh and Ayre return to the scene to show the kids who it’s done. This is a suitably political album for some dark times, especially in England, as Brexit and the rise of rampant racism has seen people of colour there targeted repeatedly.
The album opens with the wicked ‘St Marie Under Canon,’ which features this almost plastic-sounding drum roll that I just can’t get enough of. The song begins with crashing drums, a slinky bass line, and then a synthesizer before the guitar kicks in, buried down in the mix and then Singh takes the mic. For a guy famous for his deadpan flat-line delivery, here we get Singh actually singing. This is a playful track, which recalls the best of their heyday in 1997, updated for the 2020s. This is an upbeat track, which sees Singh praising St. Marie ‘for all of our battles that she has overseen and adjudicated, ending with the modern day warfare of the public address sound system: amplifier, echo chamber, microphone and speaker. Music through the sound system is the weapon (or should be).’
From there, we move into ‘Slingshot,’ which sounds like a 1970s rocker, complete with a Jethro Tullesque flute, and Singh’s lyrics, delivered in Punjabi, heavily muffled, so it sounds like he’s singing from underneath a duvet or two.
The first single from the album, ‘No Rock Save in Roll’ is the third track, and this is a guitar song, made funkier with a sitar. The track recalls Singh’s days back in Preston, England, drawing on Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ and ‘The Pusher,’ which both appear in the guitar riff and the lyrics. The song grows out of the Black Country Rock of the English Midlands, the music that morphed into heavy metal when Sabbath emerged out of the coal haze and muck of Birmingham in the late 60s.
‘Everywhere That Wog Army Roam’ is a track that has already caught some flak in the UK. ‘W*g’ is an offensive term, used as a racial slur for anyone who is not white. It is also something Singh has been called his entire life. This is not the first time Singh has weaponized this word, on Handcream for a Generation, there was a track called ‘Wogs Will Walk.’ But, the world in 2020 is very different than it was in 2002. And just as the US has seen an uptick in racist actions and violence since 2016 (the last presidential election), so, too, has the UK (2016 was the year of the Brexit referendum). And so Singh takes that on here, singing of the endless racial profiling of people of colour (or BMEs, as they are called in the UK: Black and Minority Ethnic) by the police.
‘England is a Garden,’ the title track, is a pretty little ditty, with sounds of the English seaside, birdsong, acoustic guitar, that flute again, and percussion lead us into the abyss.
‘One Uncareful Lady Owner’ owes a lot to Paul McCartney c. RAM, in the early 1970s, at least musically. In fact, this entire track, vocals and all sounds Beatlesque, as Singh sings of a heartbroken woman and the need for her heart to mend, over a tumbling drum line, a bassline that leads the song, guitars, and the sitar, lending the track a psychedelic feeling.
Album closer, ‘Holy Name,’ sounds like it was recorded live in a coffee shop, with the sound of a crowd talking part of the song, as Singh sings about, well, the Holy Name, and a critique and exploration of the actual reality of life on the ground in England, a deeply multicultural, diverse country that no amount of Boris Johnsons and the xenophobic racists of Brexit can change.
This is a stunning return to form for Cornershop, and a reminder that, sometimes, the old guys still know how to do it.