Friday, May 18, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 5/18/12 - Cornershop and OFF!

With Urban Turban, Cornershop continue with their welcome and unexpectedly prolific return to the record racks. Collecting the fruitful results of a batch of collaborative singles, this album should easily satisfy old fans, while its playfulness, intelligence and range will help recruit new ones.
From a distance, Cornershop’s career trajectory doesn’t seem all that unusual, being one of many early-‘90s indie bands to jump onto a larger stage (in this case through the Luaka Bop label) and deliver a hit song that basically defines their existence for most casual listeners. After a hiatus and a label switch they released a follow up before disappearing again, only to pop back into public consciousness with renewed purpose via their own label Ample Play.
But up close it’s rather impressive just how smoothly Cornershop picked back up right where they left off, and after some consideration the reason seems to stem from the very nature of Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayers sound. Unlike many acts that had brief affairs with the ‘90’s pop charts, there is really nothing in the group’s music that defines them as a product of that decade. Indeed, in my estimation if “Brimful of Asha” had been released last week instead of a decade and a half back, it would register as freshly up-to-date with nary a trace of the throwback.
This is mainly because Beatles’ derived pop sense and Velvet’s descended strum are two timeless ingredients in a recipe of unlikely chart success, but that’s hardly the only reason Cornershop avoid any sense of the anachronistic. For When I Was Born For the 7th Time, the very fine LP from which “Brimful of Asha” hails, still happily resounds as a creative success that resists any categorical assimilation into a default “’90s” sensibility.
Instead, the album struck a righteous blow for multiculturalism by integrating the group’s Indian roots with funk, indie-pop, hip-hop, a streak of accessible experimentation and even a bit of femme voiced country ache that was slyly reminiscent of later-period Mekons. Throw in Dan the Automator, Allen Ginsberg and a concluding Beatles cover as reclamation (“Norwegian Wood”, natch) and the results add up to a worthy and again still quite contemporary sum.
It’s perhaps for these same reasons that Cornershop’s return, while noted and welcome, has garnered little if any retro-minded fanfare. This is just as well, since 2009’s Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast found them recommencing without any unneeded “comeback” bluster by releasing an LP that if obviously the product of Cornershop still felt unique from anything that preceded it in their discography.
Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast is a very good record, detectably and appealingly glammy for much of its duration, but Cornershop and the Double ‘O’ Groove Of is where they really turned up the qualitative heat, producing what just might be their finest overall achievement to date. Much of the reason comes down to the exquisite union with Punjabi singer Bubbley Kaur; Singh and Ayers are foremost grand agents of collaboration, and Cornershop at this point is less accurately described as a band (though that’s by no means an incorrect nomenclature) and more so as a continually evolving project that succeeds through focus and an uncanny sense of what works in their infectious hybridization of genre.
Urban Turban continues the practice of collab, though it immediately carries it into a heretofore unexamined area for the group. “What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?” finds them deviating from their established practice of working with either well known musicians (Noel Gallagher, anyone?) or cultivating relationships with less bandied about names (Paula Frazer of Tarnation, Kaur) in the service of forging a successful sonic framework. It instead features the contribution of schoolchildren from Castle Hill Primary in Lancashire, and the sweet give and take between Singh and the kids helps “…Hippie…” feel a bit like a cross between “Brimful of Asha” and The Langley Schools Music Project. Except it’s more laid back than “…Asha” and far less structured than Langley in its celebration of the life-affirming and non-cynical purity of youth. And of hippies with bags, for that matter.
From there Urban Turban details Cornershop’s interaction with a variety of vocalists, all of them previously unheard by these ears, and the quality of the whole set is uniformly high. By this point Singh and Ayers are extremely adept at understanding not only the nature of their cross-pollination but also in locating the right outside contributors with which to realize their ideas.
While perhaps not immediately apparent in their sound, Cornershop are the inverse of what often results from the occasional pop tendency toward the “exotic”. Simply put, this is due to their being steeped in the traditions they employ: it’s one reason why When I Was Born For the 7th Time still holds up so well, particularly in contrast to the bogus “chill-out” music of Enigma, a project that feels even more trite now than when first released.
And Urban Turban’s best moments present a further deepening of Singh’s and Ayers’ pop ingenuity. If they’ve always successfully avoided the shallowness of pastiche, they also seem to have found a way to increase the frequency of their output without putting any strain on the level of quality.
Again, this record is collected from singles released through the wittily dubbed Singhles Club, and it lacks the natural flow of conception of Double ‘O’ Groove, mainly because it details work with a variety of vocalists conceived at different times. However, it’s hard to consider this a flaw, with the sequencing of Cornershop’s diverse method across the LP presenting an attractive set of possibilities for potential further development.
For instance, I’d love to hear the results of a full album with SoKo, the French singer featured on one of Urban Turban’s standout tracks “Something Makes You Feel Like”. In comparison to Bubbley Kaur, who burst out of the box with an able-voiced oomph that stood (at the very least) on equal footing with the sounds that surrounded her (and all without falling victim to any diva moves), SoKo comes on with a very attractive conversational hesitancy in her vocals, almost as if the music is coaxing the words out of her, and it’s this aura that could very possibly be expanded into a refreshing longer work.
And Cornershop continue to dodge the bullet of becoming too slick or formulaic. “Milkin’ It”, featuring the unusual MC skills of In Light of Aquarius, is basically an unvarnished excuse to name check a succession of classic masters of microphone technique (Spoonie Gee! Schoolly D!) and as such provides a fine counterpoint to the smoother techno-funk of “Non-Stop Radio” or the uncut dance-club cuisine of “Solid Gold”.
One somewhat bumming side-effect of Urban Turban’s design is the lack of Tjinder Singh’s vocals. His is simply one of the warmest and most immediately recognizable voices in the current pop field, and to only hear him on “What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?” (and the song’s late album reprise) is undeniably a bit of a letdown, but ultimately it’s a disappointment of omission and not an error of any grave import. As the record’s value adds up, it becomes rather easy to accept not getting enough of Singh’s singing.
If Urban Turban’s origins as standalone singles lacks the vigorous aural unity of Cornershop and the Double ‘O’ Groove Of and When I was Born For the 7th Time, it still shines as another exceptional collection of tunes from a consistently rewarding group of pop scientists. And it’s an album certain to only improve with increased familiarity.

The first full-length LP from hardcore punk survival unit OFF! delivers more of the brief, scorching sound initiated on their four highly-regarded EPs. It’s a dandy listen, and it places Keith Morris and cohorts at an interesting place. Just where will they go from here?  
When it first came to my attention that Keith Morris was going to be fronting a new band, my immediate impression was a mixture of sincere happiness for the guy and a complete disinterest in actually hearing the music. We’ll get to the happy part a few paragraphs down, but the apathetic aspect has been hashed out by quite a few others already; it has to do with both the age of Morris and his band members and the actual contemporary relevance of the whole hardcore punk shebang.
Methinks that hardcore is a perfectly fine genre to tackle in the here and now, but it is a form best served up by a band of fresh-faced upstarts like Trash Talk rather than promulgated by a bunch of certified oldsters. Unlike blues, jazz and country & western, punk rock and hardcore in particular doesn’t ripen with age; it’s very much a young person’s game. Of course, plenty of old punks are still making high quality music. It’s just that very few are still working from within the confines of the style that originally spawned them.
And it’s not just the factor of youth. There is almost always a very finite window of opportunity from which to produce truly topflight junk before the situation just starts to break down. The number of bands that produced more than one great punk LP is infinitesimal compared to the sheer wealth of fleeting names that could only manage to squeak out one exceptional seven-inch or a single classic song before the wheels fell off the endeavor.
When someone tells me about a bunch of punk vets whose sound is “just like the old days”, my reaction is consistently that of utter dubiousness, understanding the general tendency of folks to misapprehend good intentions for actual sonic success and to elevate form over content in a desire to reconnect with past glories.
In the case of OFF! I was hearing it from people I thought would know better, and this did rouse my curiosity a bit.  Still, I continued to avoid the band for a long while after learning of their existence, mainly due to my familiarity with the slowly diminishing quality of Morris’ past work; by the release of Wonderful in 1985 the Circle Jerks’ were essentially over and done with.
The four essential LPs of the Los Angeles HC-punk experience are in order of release (GI) by The Germs (released ‘79), Group Sex by Circle Jerks (released ’80), the self-titled debut from the Adolescents (released early 1981) and Damaged by Black Flag (released late 1981). Sure, there are some other high quality long-players in the Los Angeles hardcore canon along with scores of seven-inches, comps and individual songs that help to really flesh out the city’s post-Dangerhouse Records scene, but these four albums easily encapsulate the growth of the straight-ahead HC-punk sound before the genre quickly started stagnating and became plagued with also-rans, violence and noxious posers. In brief, these four LPs set the standard.
Indeed I was extremely happy to know Morris had a band and was kicking up some fervor and that his personal circumstances were looking up, for an acquaintance that had moved to the west coast had filled me in on just how awful he felt after ordering a pizza and finding one of his favorite musicians ringing his doorbell to deliver it. Simply put, hearing that news stung me, too. And on top of that the guy was diagnosed with diabetes back in 2000.
Now, past glories are no guarantee against the hard realities of life, but this was an unshakable drag of a situation, for Morris is one of true greats of Cali hardcore punk not only through his direct involvement with the Circle Jerks but also by serving as Black Flag’s first vocalist, appearing on the genre redefining and still blistering Nervous Breakdown seven-inch.
Instead of enthusing at length on the quality of Group Sex, I’ll just reference the words of the Angry Samoans’ Metal Mike Saunders when he called it a classic of “folk appropriation”; Morris and company grabbed from whatever was necessary and came up with a ragged and concise masterpiece. And it was the LP equivalent to a bolt of lightning, i.e. the kind of record that’s essentially impossible to follow up. But try they did, naturally and admirably, with two very interesting if problematic LPs, Wild in the Streets and Golden Shower of Hits. Then the situation started going to the dogs circa Wonderful. It was really quite predictable.
Well, against my better judgment I eventually caught up with the First Four EPs. And against the odds its contents were rather major. How’d that happen? For starters, Morris and ex-Burning Brides’ guitarist Dimitri Coats bailed on a reportedly subpar Circle Jerks’ incarnation and recruited drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket from the Crypt/Hot Snakes) and Steven Shane McDonald (Red Kross) to serve as the rhythm section. This shaped them up as a sort of punk rock supergroup, meaning they were flirting with disaster of massive proportions. But in avoiding the worst of all outcomes they actually achieved an extremely impressive result.
For comparison purposes OFF! mostly resemble the primal throttle of early Black Flag (that’s pre-Rollins, don’tcha know), an obvious similarity reflected in the humor of the band’s name. The First Four EPs delivered a wallop that was very similar to the aural punch thrown by one of the first three sides of the Flag’s Everything Went Black or the entirety of The First Four Years. Like these examples, OFF!’s whole essence was “short”: short-tempered, short in song-length, short in overall running time. It was a resounding and unqualified success. The only question was how long would this good creative fortune last?
This follow-up, packaged as an LP, is slightly shorter in running time than the First Four EPs, and as such holds some surface resemblance to the maniacal brevity of Group Sex. The music however retains its love affair with the mauling, grim density and velocity of early Flag, with a few slight and unfussy nods toward growth. For one example, Coats’ guitar has become more dynamic, though it’s as different from Greg Ginn string-bending work as it is similar.
Unfettered hardcore is essentially a music of exhaustion; how long can I deal with this six-band show; how long can I play drums this way without losing the feeling in my arms; how long can this amazing band avoid descending into suckdom? Minor Threat, the pick of many (including myself) as the greatest hardcore band ever, only released three 7-inch records and one 12-inch EP (plus two compilation tracks) in their entire existence; the band’s whole discography fits onto one compact disc with time to spare.
If post-hardcore was a widespread phenomenon, it had a hard time catching on in Cali and in particular Los Angeles, likely because that’s where much of HC’s sound, concept and image was formulated, and it’s also where many bands had something resembling commercial success (and the requisite “fame” that came attached). Kids in DC, Chicago, Boston, Texas, Detroit and other points on the North American map were initially reacting to cues from England and yes indeed Los Angeles and later to each other; popularity was largely elusive outside of their own peer group and notoriety was essentially posthumous. When HC started running out of gas it was easy for bands in the Midwest or DC to integrate elements of post-punk, noise or metal into the equation with differing levels of success.
In Los Angeles, three SST bands were the exception to the hardcore redundancy; Black Flag’s big grapple with a metal/hard-rock sound (what Joe Carducci dubbed “New Redneck”), Minutemen’s power-trio brilliance, and the far less heralded punk-psyche-art of Saccharine Trust. In comparison to these bold moves, OFF! is still taking baby steps.
But it’s early yet. This self-titled affair is their first LP after all. But it essentially puts them on a precipice; are big things going to happen, or is this the beginning of the seemingly inevitable downward spiral? It bears mentioning that Morris has never successfully navigated a move away from the punk norm. It would be a total gas if at this late date he accomplished just that.