Graded on a Curve: Cornershop,
Woman’s Gotta Have It

In the beginning, God created the drone. And She said, “The drone is Good.” She was talking about the Velvet Underground of course, before John Cale took his viola and skedaddled, but unbeknownst to God, xenophobe that She is, there was another drone out there, a very cool South Asian drone native to India and Pakistan.

How cool are our South Asian brothers and sisters? So cool that they’ve based their classical, folk, AND pop music on the drone. Take your Hindustani Sangeet and Carnatic Sangeet, for instance. Both feature performers kicking out the drone on the tambura, with its four strings tuned to the tonic, and that’s hardly scratching the surface.

Which brings us to Cornershop and its genius of a front man, Punjabi Londoner Tjinder Singh, about whom the critic Robert Christgau wrote, “There are only so many places you can take the Velvet Underground at this late date… but [Singh] has found one.” What Singh did, obviously, was take that wonderful Indian drone and combine it with good old rock’n’roll to create what one critic dubbed “Hindi-pop,” or as I prefer to think of it, that nonexistent but wonderful place on the world map where Lou Reed and the Ganges converge.

On Cornershop’s 1995 sophomore release Woman’s Gotta Have It, Singh and company (Cornershop features three guitarists and another guy on the sitar, and it tells) mingle Indian-flavored drone rockers with such great Indian-free lo-fi indie numbers such as “Call All Destroyer” and “Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu,” which will make you forget all about the great Carl Douglas. And then there’s the irresistible “Wog” (a derogatory term for a dark-skinned South Asian), in which Singh repeats, “This western oriental/going full circle” to the sound of hand claps and some very cool backing vocals by Parsley and Sasha Andres. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the slow and way indie groove that constitutes “Roof Rack.” Love the sound of the meaty lead guitar on this one!

While Singh definitely has what it takes to be an indie hero, he’s at his best when he’s melding his Punjabi roots with indie pop to create a sound as infectious as a mouthful of Ganges’ water. “My Dancing Days Are Done” is a sonic experiment turned duet (love the sitar and Indian percussion), while “Camp Orange” is a funky Punjabi rocker that features lots of children singing.

But Singh really kicks out the Indian jams on album opener “6 A.M. Jullandar Shere,” which boasts a beguiling drone over which Singh sounds like he’s singing through a megaphone. And if this very-Indocentric baby sends you into a trance (as it should) the same goes double for LP closer “7:20 AM Jullandar Shere,” on which Cornershop stretches things out to 13 beguiling minutes.

They’re both great, great songs, but my own personal faves are the guitar rave-ups “Jansimram King” (a slow one that’ll poke you in the eye if you’re not alert) and “Looking for a Way In,” on which Cornershop’s guitarists play the gnarliest distorto guitar this side of the Velvet Underground’s “I Heard Her Call My Name.” Neither is particularly Indian tinged, but both are sophisticated applications of the VU Prinzip. On “Looking for a Way In” Singh and Company obviously decide the best way in is by means of carelessly modulated noise, as both the lead guitarist and the rhythm guitarist segue from VU groove to one wonderfully fucked-up freak-out.

When I asked a whiz-bang guitarist friend how Cornershop achieved said sound he mentioned some boring guitar techniques, before conceding, “It sounds like the guy just pulled a t-shirt over the guitar while playing it.” Eureka! That’s what I’m talking about! And here I thought there was no topping the frenzied guitar sound Philadelphian Ron Gallo got on last year’s “Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me”! Well, think again brothers and sisters, cuz “Looking for a Way In” is the real McCoy!

Yea! Heavy and a bottle of bread, whether you prefer Cornershop’s more South Asian-influenced sound or its more westernized melodies, they have created some of the coolest music you will ever hear. From 1994’s Hold On It Hurts through to the present, Cornershop have been producing a sound that racists would no doubt refer to as “mongrelized.” To which I can only say, we’re all mongrels, darlings, so be proud of it. Now turn up the VU-meets-“Quinn the Eskimo” fusion “Brimful of Asha” (from 1997’s funkier and more experimental When I Was Born for the 7th Time) and dance your legs down to your knees. All praise to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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