Graded on a Curve:
Urban Turban

With Urban Turban, Cornershop continue with their welcome and unexpectedly prolific return to the record racks. Collecting the fruitful results of a batch of collaborative singles, this album should easily satisfy old fans, while its playfulness, intelligence, and range will help recruit new ones.

From a distance, Cornershop’s career trajectory doesn’t seem all that unusual, being one of many early-‘90s indie bands to jump onto a larger stage (in this case through the Luaka Bop label) and deliver a hit song that basically defines their existence for most casual listeners. After a hiatus and a label switch they released a follow up before disappearing again, only to pop back into public consciousness with renewed purpose via their own label Ample Play.

But up close it’s rather impressive just how smoothly Cornershop picked back up right where they left off, and after some consideration the reason seems to stem from the very nature of Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayers sound. Unlike many acts that had brief affairs with the ‘90’s pop charts, there is really nothing in the group’s music that defines them as a product of that decade. Indeed, in my estimation if “Brimful of Asha” had been released last week instead of a decade and a half back, it would register as freshly up-to-date with nary a trace of the throwback.

This is mainly because Beatles’ derived pop sense and Velvet’s descended strum are two timeless ingredients in a recipe of unlikely chart success, but that’s hardly the only reason Cornershop avoid any sense of the anachronistic. For When I Was Born For the 7th Time, the very fine LP from which “Brimful of Asha” hails, still happily resounds as a creative success that resists any categorical assimilation into a default “’90s” sensibility.

Instead, the album struck a righteous blow for multiculturalism by integrating the group’s Indian roots with funk, indie-pop, hip-hop, a streak of accessible experimentation, and even a bit of femme voiced country ache that was slyly reminiscent of later-period Mekons. Throw in Dan the Automator, Allen Ginsberg, and a concluding Beatles cover as reclamation (“Norwegian Wood,” natch) and the results add up to a worthy and again still quite contemporary sum.

It’s perhaps for these same reasons that Cornershop’s return, while noted and welcome, has garnered little if any retro-minded fanfare. This is just as well, since 2009’s Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast found them recommencing without any unneeded “comeback” bluster by releasing an LP that if obviously the product of Cornershop still felt unique from anything that preceded it in their discography.

Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast is a very good record, detectably and appealingly glammy for much of its duration, but Cornershop and the Double ‘O’ Groove Of is where they really turned up the qualitative heat, producing what just might be their finest overall achievement to date. Much of the reason comes down to the exquisite union with Punjabi singer Bubbley Kaur; Singh and Ayers are foremost grand agents of collaboration, and Cornershop at this point is less accurately described as a band (though that’s by no means an incorrect nomenclature) and more so as a continually evolving project that succeeds through focus and an uncanny sense of what works in their infectious hybridization of genre.

Urban Turban continues the practice of collab, though it immediately carries it into a heretofore unexamined area for the group. “What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?” finds them deviating from their established practice of working with either well known musicians (Noel Gallagher, anyone?) or cultivating relationships with less bandied about names (Paula Frazer of Tarnation, Kaur) in the service of forging a successful sonic framework. It instead features the contribution of schoolchildren from Castle Hill Primary in Lancashire, and the sweet give and take between Singh and the kids helps “…Hippie…” feel a bit like a cross between “Brimful of Asha” and The Langley Schools Music Project. Except it’s more laid back than “…Asha” and far less structured than Langley in its celebration of the life-affirming and non-cynical purity of youth. And of hippies with bags, for that matter.

From there Urban Turban details Cornershop’s interaction with a variety of vocalists, all of them previously unheard by these ears, and the quality of the whole set is uniformly high. By this point Singh and Ayers are extremely adept at understanding not only the nature of their cross-pollination but also in locating the right outside contributors with which to realize their ideas.

While perhaps not immediately apparent in their sound, Cornershop are the inverse of what often results from the occasional pop tendency toward the “exotic.” Simply put, this is due to their being steeped in the traditions they employ: it’s one reason why When I Was Born For the 7th Time still holds up so well, particularly in contrast to the bogus “chill-out” music of Enigma, a project that feels even more trite now than when first released.

And Urban Turban’s best moments present a further deepening of Singh’s and Ayers’ pop ingenuity. If they’ve always successfully avoided the shallowness of pastiche, they also seem to have found a way to increase the frequency of their output without putting any strain on the level of quality.

Again, this record is collected from singles released through the wittily dubbed Singhles Club, and it lacks the natural flow of conception of Double ‘O’ Groove, mainly because it details work with a variety of vocalists conceived at different times. However, it’s hard to consider this a flaw, with the sequencing of Cornershop’s diverse method across the LP presenting an attractive set of possibilities for potential further development.

For instance, I’d love to hear the results of a full album with SoKo, the French singer featured on one of Urban Turban’s standout tracks “Something Makes You Feel Like.” In comparison to Bubbley Kaur, who burst out of the box with an able-voiced oomph that stood (at the very least) on equal footing with the sounds that surrounded her (and all without falling victim to any diva moves), SoKo comes on with a very attractive conversational hesitancy in her vocals, almost as if the music is coaxing the words out of her, and it’s this aura that could very possibly be expanded into a refreshing longer work.

And Cornershop continue to dodge the bullet of becoming too slick or formulaic. “Milkin’ It,” featuring the unusual MC skills of In Light of Aquarius, is basically an unvarnished excuse to name check a succession of classic masters of microphone technique (Spoonie Gee! Schoolly D!) and as such provides a fine counterpoint to the smoother techno-funk of “Non-Stop Radio” or the uncut dance-club cuisine of “Solid Gold.”

One somewhat bumming side-effect of Urban Turban’s design is the lack of Tjinder Singh’s vocals. His is simply one of the warmest and most immediately recognizable voices in the current pop field, and to only hear him on “What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?” (and the song’s late album reprise) is undeniably a bit of a letdown, but ultimately it’s a disappointment of omission and not an error of any grave import. As the record’s value adds up, it becomes rather easy to accept not getting enough of Singh’s singing.

If Urban Turban’s origins as standalone singles lacks the vigorous aural unity of Cornershop and the Double ‘O’ Groove Of and When I was Born For the 7th Time, it still shines as another exceptional collection of tunes from a consistently rewarding group of pop scientists. And it’s an album certain to only improve with increased familiarity.

Graded on a Curve: A-

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