Cornershop - "United Provinces of India" (Cornershop and the Double-O Groove Of)
In the accompanying press for Cornershop & the Double ‘O’ Groove Of, erstwhile frontman Tjinder Singh claims that he’s “wanted to do an album like this for 20 years.” At first listen to Cornershop’s new release, one wonders why he and cohort Ben Ayres waited so long to put forth such a seamless fusion of Punjabi roots-music and sample-happy Britrock. Maybe an earlier attempt - outside of the odd appetite-whetter like “Brimful of Asha” or the few more Indocentric tunes on 2009’s Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast - would have sounded forced and not as fully realized. Or maybe he was waiting for the right collaborator, which they’ve found in featured vocalist Bubbley Kaur.
Kaur may have stumbled her way into a full-time gig, and kudos to Cornershop for drawing from the giddha (Punjabi folk/dance music as sung by women — think of it as the more feminine side to bhangra) tradition rather than basing these tracks on some harder-hitting bhangra dhol rhythms. Her rosewater-sweet vocals — sung entirely in Punjabi — sound like they served as the compositional centerpiece of more or less every track on this record, leaving Singh and Co. to come up with the catchy accompaniment for her melodies and cadences.
“United Provinces of India” throws everything into the brew from the get go. Anchored by a breakbeat, the rhythmic pluck of the one-stringed Punjabi tumbi gives way to single-note funk guitar while a Gangstarr-esque jazz loop drops in and out of the mix. Disparate parts fall together perfectly again on ‘Topknot,” whose sunny guitar riff and Casiotone rhythmic tick create an unexpectedly comfy bedding for Kaur’s heartwarming performance. Throughout, she shows her knack for emoting in a way that renders the language barrier totally irrelevant — what might in another context sound foreign here sounds like a greeting from an old friend, sung through a smile. “The 911 Curry” forgoes a retro funk backing for what could pass as a traditional devotional bhajan dominated by tabla and droning harmonium with funky stabs of brass. Kaur’s floating vocal is propelled by a skipping JB-style bass-and-drum groove on “Natch,” which starts with a bizarre and comical college fight-song theme. It’s juxtapositions like those that remind one of the band’s wry sense of humor: “Double Decker Eyelashes” grafts a stately harpsichord melody to Kaur’s vocal, bringing to mind the scene from the hit Hindi film Lagaan, where the stuffy suited and gowned Britishers are having their very “proper” ball within the confines of their Indian compound. “Once There was a Wintertime” creates a similar comically quaint mood with spliced-and-diced chamber overture samples peppering yet another funk breakbeat.
On the other hand, Cornershop recall their heritage — both Indian and British — in the slinky, organ- and sitar-driven “Double Digit,” which soundchecks Ananda Shankar’s early desi-funk experiments, and “The Biro Pen,” which (save for Kaur’s golden-era Bollywoodisms) could pass for an Ian Dury and the Blockheads out-take. The album wraps with a terribly strong lead-out track in the vague Madchester rhythms of “Don’t Shake It,” whose fingerpicked guitar chords, a la “Everybody’s Talkin’,” buoy Kaur’s jubilant refrain of “hai, hai / hoi, hoi.”
Cornershop and the Double-O Groove Of finds the band’s east/west fusion developed far past the experimental stage into deft and heartfelt songcraft. And given the renewed interest in India’s pop culture in a post-Slumdog Millionaire and Sublime Frequencies-informed west, the timing couldn’t be better.