Back in the Victorian/Edwardian day, English colonizers strategically used the catchiest pop-cultural vehicle of that time, the Victorian novel, as a means of instilling British decency in their Indian subjects. This process of "intellectual colonization," as discussed in seldom-read academic texts like Guari Viswanathan's Masks of Conquests, was, for decades, an astoundingly successful tool, not only in winning hearts and minds but also at giving the English-thought power brokers a silly sense of missionary benevolence.
In 1965 George Harrison inverted the process, adding postcolonial insult to injury by swiping (some would say "appropriating") the sitar, and applying it to the catchiest pop-cultural vehicle of his time: the Beatles song. In doing so he turned Indian classical music's most important instrument into one of the more frequently abused "free your mind" accessories of the hippie era.
Tjinder Singh, the London-born, Punjabi-blooded frontman of the London band Cornershop, was barely a babe when Beatles songs like "Norwegian Wood" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" started reshaping the pop world's Orientalist conception of Eastern classical music. When Singh started discovering his own musical identity in the mid-to-late '80s, Harrison's vision was barely noticeable among the polyglot musics offered Punjabi kids growing up in London's "Anglo-Indian" neighborhoods: hip hop, chart-pop, punk rock, and the Hindi-language disco variant, bhangra.
Strangely enough, confronted with all these possibilities, Singh chose indie rock. Cornershop's 1993 debut on Superchunk's Merge label is guitar rock at its shaggiest. Yet, those indie influences proved prolific. When Singh and Co. got wise and decided to take back the sitar on their major-label debut Woman's Gotta Have It, what came out droned on like something influenced more by the Velvet Underground (or La Monte Young if you wanna be academic about it) than any of the hippie-dippie dream music Harrison had in mind.
On When I Was Born For the Seventh Time, Cornershop's latest release, Singh ups the post-Georgian ante with a straight (maybe even reverential) cover of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," sung entirely in Hindi. This surprisingly fetching recording speaks to Singh's confused postcolonial heritage more explicitly than anything else on When I Was Born. And though "we" Anglo-Yanks might hear it as the tribute it very well might be, when transmogrified through the postcolonial lens, it resonates with an appropriative pride not unlike the one the U.S. hip-hop nation achieved when it took back the word "nigger."
"Norwegian Wood" isn't the only political moment on When I Was Born. But it is the easiest one to spot on an album in which political messages are engraved into a dense, often enigmatic mix. They come in the album's folds: through its beats, and within a confoundingly sexy atmosphere of sample/soundscapes that go generations beyond Cornershop's earlier guitar gropings. This is a funk record, one that blends the feel-good party-political lyricism of Sly Stone's "Everyday People" and the wicked hip-hop rhythms coming out of London's underground DJ scene. This post-hop mix, when worked through Anthony Saffery's post-punk sitar, Ben Ayers's loose keyboard, and Singh's VU-retread guitar riffs and punter-poet singing, makes for some of the most complex Brit pop imaginable.
So complex, really, that it takes roughly four listens before you even notice the band is actually saying anything at all. Any overt or intentional ideology on When I Was Born comes in snippets. Good things like "workers' strikes," "labor counsels," "Asian fire," and "community," as well as crummy ones, like "IBM and Coca-Cola," are mentioned in the space of the first few songs, but they're rarely given context or room to gestate before we're forced to move onto the next idea or jam. English speakers will be further confused as such fragments get lost in Singh's non-sequitur switches from Hindi lyrics to English ones.
And still, the album's balance of arty and party swiftly sucks you in. Early tracks drop florid art-hop. Dr. Octagon-producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura steeps the bass-heavy album-opener "Sleep On the Left Side" in flute loops and a mirage-like accordion sample, as Singh sings a simple song à la Sly Stone: "We're gonna let it go and let it go higher." Singh mentions "Asian fire" on "Sleep on the Left Side," and it's a vague concept he seems to understand as something incredibly catholic. The next track, "Brimful of Asha," a tribute to Bollywood singing star Asha Bhosle, unwinds a signature Velvets riff, while Singh grooves on "Trojan Records" and a sampled string section. "Everybody needs a bosom from below/mine's on the RPM," he sings, going at record-listening (and record-scratching) as if he were describing some new jack dal for the Punjabi B-Boy soul-spirit.
But listening and scratching aren't new at all. DJing in the hip-hop sense that Singh's talking about has been around almost as many years as he has; in fact Tjinder's probably been exposed to it, in some way or another, as long as he's known about sitars. So, when he and Nakamura bounce one off the other in the forward-looking collages "Butter and Soul," "We're In Ya Corner," and "Coming Up," they do so as if they're building an ethno-musical elastic bridge: "Asian fire" as something DJ Shadow might play with.
Yet, it's just when we realize the above--right at the end of "Coming Up" (track 9)--that Asian fire starts to seem a little predictable. When Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori shows up for a vocal pitter-patter on the next track, "Good Shit," it smacks of something prescribed. Heading down the home stretch, Singh's record needs a little lift, and he knows it. So he ups the ante again and post-George Harrison becomes neo-George Jones as East-meets-West becomes East-goes-Western.
That's the long way of saying that Singh does country. "Good To Be On the Road Back Home," a duet with Tarnation's Paula Frazer, is a genuine jewel--a feedback-soaked, mildly groovy, fairly hokey rewrite of both "By the Time I Get To Phoenix" and John Denver's "Back Home Again." It might just be the grooviest, blackest honky-tonk song ever written. Somewhere Charlie Pride is smiling. And somewhere under the dark English soil, George Harrison is rolling in his grave. He is the dead one, right?