Live Report: Cornershop

The Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge, Mass., May 30, 1998

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It was a toss-up as to which was the more fascinating experience: hearing Cornershop cast their gentle spell of Punjab-flavored pop, hip-hop grooves and psychedelic drones last Sunday afternoon; or watching the band perform outdoors amid wood chips, mulch and skate kids who were inexplicably attracted to the idea of scaling the high, scrawny trees planted in front of the stage.

Cornershop seemed a tad out of place at this local rock radio station's all-day festival (the skateboard half-pipe set up a dozen yards away certainly didn't add anything to the mellow atmosphere the band was trying to conjure). Then again, perhaps environment had little to do with singer Tjinder Singh's demeanor. Some nine hours later, playing in front of a packed, crimson-lit club crowd at midnight, Singh managed, somehow, to look just as ill at ease.

It's a good thing the music was a lot warmer and relaxed -- and, frankly, a lot more interesting -- than Singh's stoic, even indifferent, on-stage persona. Uttering nary a word to the audience, Singh stepped up to the mic at the outset of the band's sixty-minute club set and leaned into "Sleep On the Left Side" from Cornershop's breakthrough second album, When I Was Born For The 7th Time. That tune, built on a foundation of Brill Building pop, glued together with dollops of chunky percussion, and ornamented with exotic (at least by American mainstream rock standards) instrumentation, showcased the luscious, alluring beauty of the band's music. Old School and New Style bubbled up from the band's shambling grooves like vintage wax and melted into a blissed-out amalgam of bedroom indie-pop and streetcorner scratching.

Cornershop further hooked the audience with a faithful cover of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" sung in Punjabi, and a spirited reading of their infectious, retro-radio hit, "Brimful of Asha." Like all great pop moments, the latter song (named after Indian model/singer Asha Bhosle) suggested, rather than spelled out, a stream of luminous images and memories. When Singh strummed his acoustic guitar and toasted the names of all those old record labels ("Ardent Records -- 45! Trojan Records -- 45!"), the tune sounded like the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll" by way of "Sweet Jane." Later, the band stretched the sitar-laden "We're In Yr Corner," with its propulsive rhythms and rustling chimes, into a loping, languid jam that slipped, first, into the stop 'n' scratch instrumental "Butter The Soul," then crashed jubilantly into "Good Shit."

Come to think of it, with song titles like those, there was really no need for Singh to say anything (besides, does anybody ever really need to hear the canned rock star query "hey, how you doin' out there" again?). The music spoke eloquently for itself, and titles like "Good Shit" pretty much summed up what Cornershop were doing.