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Pillow Talk

Cornershop's East/West diplomacy is as soothing as it is sophisticated

"Women aren't the only ones with bosoms, you know."
With that statement, Cornershop's soft-spoken leader, Tjinder Singh, is attempting to explain the meaning behind the refrain that forms the basis for the addictively catchy chorus of the English band's latest single, "Brimful of Asha." On it, Singh -- in a delivery more forceful than his speaking voice, but not by much -- gleefully repeats the line "everybody needs a bosom for a pillow" just often enough to render it unforgettable.

The phrase's intended effect would seem to be that of instilling a sense of unity -- spiritual, racial and otherwise -- in a rudely factious world by way of some love and tenderness. Such universal sentiment is at the very essence of both Cornershop and Singh, a British-born musical eccentric of Indian descent who's had a fair share of bigotry directed his way over the years. Sadly though, the actual effect will likely amount to far less, especially for those who see the song as little more than a curiosity -- or even worse, a novelty. Still, it's a start, seeing as how "Brimful of Asha" shows every indication of being the closest thing to an American hit thus far for Cornershop.

"It has a nice ring to it, actually," says Singh, in reference to the tune's somewhat unsavory nickname, "The Bosom Song," among Cornershop neophytes.

Indeed, "Brimful of Asha" -- with its simply strummed, barely amplified guitar chords that could have been a lift from The Velvet Underground, kitschy strings and spoken intro delivered in Singh's native Punjabi -- isn't the only track from Cornershop's latest CD to have a nice ring to it. Easily the group's most fully realized -- and commercial -- convening of the global community, When I Was Born for the 7th Time might best be described as World Music 101 for the Anglocentric. And while the disc has more than its share of mildly funky, straightforward pop numbers along the lines of "Brimful of Asha," Singh and Cornershop co-founder Ben Ayres still manage to stir up more Eastern influences than you can pluck a sitar at. Aside from sprinkling in looped bits of live tamboura, dholki (an Indian drum) and, of course, sitar, Singh goes so far as to sing an otherwise faithfully rendered cover of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" entirely in Punjabi. How's that for upending traditional pop colonialism?

In fact, you might say that parts of When I Was Born for the 7th Time are the aural equivalent of slipping a healthy pinch of cardamom into the average American clubgoer's late-night Jumbo Jack. But that would be overgeneralizing. And if any band lends itself poorly to overgeneralizations, it's Cornershop. There's simply too much happening within its wacky, perplexing grooves to confine it to a single melting pot, no matter how large.

7th Time's multicultural goodwill junket is hardly confined to India and its surrounding territories. On it you'll find traces of hip-hop, reggae, '70s funk, prog-rock, acid jazz, even Cajun music. On the more out-front end of the spectrum, Singh pairs up with Tarnation vocalist Paula Frazer for the poignant, C&W-tinged "Good to Be on the Road Back Home." Cornershop even handed over the reigns to the late Allen Ginsberg for a reading of his poem "When the Light Appears Boy," backed, strangely enough, by a performance from a Punjabi brass-and-drum ensemble that Singh recorded outside a temple in India.

All of which goes a long way toward explaining why critics everywhere have been falling over themselves trying to decipher the meaning behind the contents of Cornershop's global jukebox since 7th Time's late-'97 release. Most of those selfsame critics ranked the CD among the most important of last year, much as they had Beck's multi-influenced, cut-and-paste masterpiece Odelay! in '96. But while Beck's wickedly skewed studio concoctions tend toward the cerebrally off-putting, Cornershop's homey sonic embrace is soothing and approachable, even as it spans continents in search of inspiration. A wholly natural sense of fun pervades the Cornershop vibe, with Singh the gregarious, low-key party boy and all the nations of the world his rainbow-colored oyster.

"Happy days are here again, my friend," he sings on 7th Time's ebullient centerpiece, "Funky Days Are Back Again," a thrift-store Casio keyboard and woozy wah-wah pedal coaxing his poofy optimism along. For sure, Singh isn't about to rescind that proclamation. He's come too far to turn back now.

Tjinder Singh, 29, was born in northern England to parents who had emigrated from the Punjab in northwest India. The first instrument he owned was a dholki, which he played in his local temple. In Wolverhampton, the town where he grew up, it was not uncommon for Singh and his other Indian pals to be chased and taunted by the local whites. He continues to nurse bitter memories of those and other racist episodes, and in the beginning, they almost single-handedly fueled his desire to pick up a guitar and start a rock band.

Still seething over the cultural and racial stereotyping he'd witnessed both firsthand and in the pop music on which he was weaned, Singh formed Cornershop in 1992 with his brother Avtar and his college mate Ben Ayres. The band's name, a reference to the small grocery stores run by many Indians in Great Britain, was meant as a blunt acknowledgment of his people's socioeconomic status in the UK. Grating and often defiantly unmusical, the group's early material was no less brash and unruly than Singh's sentiments were pointed and outspoken. "Again and again the racist grind," Singh bellows on "England's Dreaming," from the band's 1993 EP, appropriately titled Lock, Stock and Double-Barrel.

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