If England is a garden, it’s no dappled paradise. It’s a tiny, rotting patch infested with aggressive native knotweed, run by gardeners uprooting any surviving plant life to sell off cheap and in increasingly hostile and expensive border litigation with the neighbours.
But at least England has pleasant corners like Cornershop, renowned in the ‘90s and beyond for Fatboy Slim’s big beat brush-up of ‘Brimful Of Asha’, masterfully marrying British Asian culture with riot grrl and indie pop and having Morrissey’s number some decades before the rest of us.
Unfortunately, Tjinder Singh, Ben Ayres and their ever-growing band – they now number seven – have kept the shutters largely drawn on Cornershop for the past decade. Considering their last album, 2015’s ‘Hold On It’s Easy’, was an easy listening re-recording of their 1994 debut ‘Hold On It Hurts’, their last album of original material arrived way back in 2012. This only helps make this ninth album feel like a throwback to a pre-Grimesian era when simply playing ‘60s tunes on instruments made of asbestos was enough to make you an alt-rock godhead.
The look, then, is ruined retro. ‘St Marie Under Canon’ opens the record with a crackling, treated northern soul thump, wearing its audiophilia so proudly on its sleeve that Tjinder even sings instructions for setting up a sound system towards the end, sheer gobbledigook for Generation Bluetooth. ‘Slingshot’ takes the record for a gospel country meander through downtown Wuhan – at least, Tjinder sounds like he’s singing through a gas mask – and ‘No Rock: Save In Roll’ celebrates the black country metal scene in the style of a droning ‘Brown Sugar’ Stones. And that, genre-wise, is as 21st Century as the record gets.
The album’s modernism is more subtly conferred. It’s in the interplay between sitar, flute and birdsong on the pastoral title track to reflect England’s generations-old, interwoven multi-culturalism (see also: brilliant Merseybeat bhangra freak-out ‘One Uncareful Lady Owner’). It’s in the themes of police harassment raising a fist from beneath the rocksteady vibe of ‘Everywhere That Wog Army Roam’, or the odd bit of space ray noise laced around the honky-tonk boogie plod of ‘I’m A Wooden Soldier’, a song for ZZ Top fans getting high on beard wax fumes.
At heart, though, Cornershop remain DIY until they die – after all, any outside producer would have faded out the nice-but-overlong indie-pop tracks ‘Highly Amplified’ or ‘The Cash Money’ before they spent two minutes outstaying their welcomes.
Speaking of which, ‘England Is A Garden’ ends on a nine-minute jig called ‘The Holy Name’, its crowd chatter, repetitive pop chant and talk of curing multitudes giving it the feel of a finger-cymbal procession along Oxford Street. It’s a fitting finale – Cornershop’s cult is one you’ve either already signed over your seventh-born to or will watch pass you by with a fascinated bemusement.
Release date: March 6
Record label: Rough Trade