Of Thee I Singh

Critics are fond of calling music "revolutionary." That proposition at least made inadvertent sense back in the days of the LP, when records did, if nothing else, spin in regular circles. Now that rotating CDs have given way to the thrill of compressed digital files, "revolutionary" mostly means that the auteurs under scrutiny have both darkish skin and bohemian pedigrees, and that their rhythmic acuity is matched by their thrift-shopping acumen. Yes, brothers and sisters, college radio will someday broadcast the frequency that brings the city walls tumbling down, just like Plato and Calvin Johnson and John Cougar Mellencamp always said. Admittedly, we may have been misled at first. Maybe it won't be pasty record collectors like Sonic Youth doing the damage. Like, maybe it will be some wily post-colonial subject. Like, maybe, Tjinder Singh.

Like, right. It hardly seems that five years have passed since Cornershop's When I Was Born for the 7th Time surfaced as everycrit's favorite dollop of globalternative. Singh politicized his retro chic by chanting that workers' strikes were just as funky as corduroy. He translated Lennon's Oriental flirtation "Norwegian Wood" into Punjabi, tee hee. He even stumbled across a hit, "Brimful of Asha," by celebrating Indian film queen Asha Bhosle-- the most dashing stroke of all, exclaimed folks who'd never heard the icon's shrill soprano before Singh name-checked her.

No shame in that--I hadn't heard Bhosle either. Sure, a little cultural background never hurts, but you don't need to recognize the Kraftwerk swipe to dig "Planet Rock." The Indian elements that Singh employs are always conveniently on the surface of the music for listeners to grasp immediately. Singh has many reasons to love his cultural legacy--among them, that it makes eclecticism effortless: Why stoop to crate-digging when you can just rent a sitar player? Singh is as intent on exploiting his heritage as any indie kid. Except instead of Kiss covers and TV reruns, he inherited tablas and Bollywood. Really, as blows against the empire go, Singh's subdued Beatles cover was a soft, caressing breath, which was only fitting. After all, the Beatles are his birthright as much as Noel Gallagher's.

Gallagher happens to appear on Cornershop's long-awaited followup, Handcream for a Generation (Beggars Banquet). (Don't know if the lad's scribbly guitar is appropriated, per se, but it is appropriate.) Beginning with its title, Handcream for a Generation simultaneously encourages and tweaks the political expectations that still trail Singh. The people do deserve adequate skin care, after all. And while I can't quite tell you what "Staging the Plaguing of the Raised Platform" argues for (something about "making the dope doper"), any program whose cadence rolls so smoothly is aces with me. Even better, this cavalcade of styles segues choppily together with an illogic that makes DJ Spooky sound like he's auditioning for Windham Hill.

In other words, Handcream is a mess. And that's good, because messes are good. I mean, if postmodernism means anything useful, it's that the notion of a single, coherent world is delusional and passé. Our varied heritages aren't puzzle pieces preordained to click together into a portrait of a shiny, united globe: They're leftover scraps of history we stitch together into a gaudy patchwork. Messes don't signify, as they put it in seminar land. They don't flaunt their significance. They just sound neat.

So slogans are tossed out without dwelling on the confrontational impetus behind them. Singh, ever the good indie rocker, always carefully crosses the S's in his dissidence. When it comes to organizing, he's almost like Emma Goldman misquoting Groucho instead of Karl: He won't dance to any revolution that will have him as a member. Maybe the lad has trouble committing--in this case, committing to a third chord. His tunes hop from one chord to the next, then back again, all songwriting effort apparently expended. The refusal of his two-chord vamps to blossom into hooky monsters is both as defiant an anti-pop move as a blast of feedback and as casual a gesture as an untucked shirt.

Last time Singh found himself in tune with turntablism and drum 'n' bass, whose ethnotechno partisans were bopping to tablas like they were "Mother Popcorn." But the Indian atmospherics are in short supply here, because too much would distract from Singh's new mission: to convince the world that all dance music is, in fact, disco. Not since Billy Joel has a musician so gleefully denied the existence of subgenres. That Frenchy deep house track? Disco. The chitlin-circuit soul-revue facsimile? Disco. Electronically twiddled reggae? Disco. Swift's DJ prestidigitation? Disco, disco, disco! There's disco with guitars and disco with horns and disco with kiddie choruses and syncopated cell-phone twitters and strings. And as the man says here, "Disco is halfway to a full discontent." Cute, even if Singh is coy about who will take us the other half of the way and supply the (i)ntent.

If Beck thought disco had more to do with dumb, sweaty glee than with whether your scarf matched your shoes, if he made a record with more funk than fuss--well, I guess he wouldn't be Beck then, which sure would disappoint Beck fans, who might have to start dancing or something. But he might sound something like Handcream for a Generation. Sure, "We're gonna take this movement onto the streets" has more to do with closing time than manning the barricades. Sometimes all you ask from your revolution is that it turn the beat around.

 
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