When the history of British music is written there’s a fair chance that Cornershop will be forgotten. That’s a shame, a crime perhaps. Many, many bands have made much bigger splashes but much smaller contributions.
Cornershop, like XTC before them, came out of a scene which they soon transcended, going on to make truly original music, blending influences in new ways, testing the limits of their talents and steadily finding sounds that others were missing. In doing so they made their way out into territory that they alone mapped and colonised. This left them seeming outliers when in fact, again like XTC, they are, at their heart, a deeply British band. In their records can be found a sound collage of the last 40 years of at least one, if not more, of Britain’s histories.
By the time they reached ‘Handcream For A Generation’, their fourth album, they were at their most confident. They were buoyed by the success of ‘When I Was Born For The Seventh Time’, a record that had perfected the loose-limbed groove they had been working out over the preceding two and, thanks to a Norman Cook remix, rode it all the way to number one. Four years later, with ‘Brimful of Asha’ still echoing through playlists up and down the nation, they returned with easily their most ambitious album. Whilst it may not have captured anything like the attention of its predecessor, for me it’s their definitive statement, or at least my favourite. It’s a record of pure and flawless pleasure and always the record of theirs I choose, always without hesitation and never to be disappointed. It’s never not a pleasure to hear.
Which is not to say that the pleasures herein are steady and consistent. The wild variety of ‘Handcream’ is confounding, but ultimately one of the reasons to love it. It swerves fearlessly from lazy funk to pulsing trance to pastiche 70s cock rock to playground singalongs to 15 minute Eastern bliss-outs with apparently no grand purpose or scheme. The whole collection wears a huge smile on its face and, like a stick of rock, this attitude is evident wherever and however you slice it. Each song does something different yet all retain a hazy upbeat vibe and none fail to get fingers, feet and heads moving happily.
Zoom in even further and the detail is a microscopic treasure trove. There’s the three different telephone tones used to propel ‘People Power’, the repetition of song titles across several tracks as if political slogans, the moment in ‘Motion the 11’ when the MC stops the session just to make sure the engineer is recording because “this might just be the one”. ‘The London Radar’ straps flight announcement samples together, Avalanches-style, and gets the whole thing airborne like a 70s British Airways advert. Then there’s the simple pleasure of the opening track ‘Heavy Soup’ which introduces the main players and trails several of the tracks they are about to perform, as if this were live at the Harlem Apollo. It’s playful, endearing and pulled off with just enough verve and attention to detail.
Those who waited five years for ‘Handcream for a Generation’ to land seemed to struggle to know what to do with it. The trick was simple, just enjoy it. For me, it’s much better than ‘When I Was Born…’. Here they combine not just happy grooves, but 70s rock, 90s electronica, millennial hip-hop, timeless dancehall and sunrise mantras and the whole melting pot thing has more spike, more juice, more joy, more thrills.
In the midst of all this there’s a subtle, oblique politics at work. Even post-millennium there seemed to be something of an open challenge in the seamless combinations, as opposed to clashes, of sounds, cultures, languages and styles in this record. Although the band make no direct claims herein, the album stands as a state of the sound of the nation address more freewheeling and convincing than any others I can recall from the period.
It’s the Cornershop album I always reach for and in the 12 years since I first heard it, I’ve reached for it a hell of a lot.
Tom listened: Before this evening my knowledge of Cornershop did not extend beyond Brimful of Asha. I liked that single well enough, kind of in the same way as, say, Wake Up Boo, it cheered me up to hear it on the radio, gave me hope that all was not lost with chart music (unlike nowadays, I have to say) but it didn’t occur to me to delve any deeper into Cornershop’s music – I always thought it would be a case of ‘more of the same but less so’.
I certainly never imagined that Cornershop would cover the breadth of musical landscapes in evidence on Handcream for a Generation. In scope it reminded me of In a Bar Under the Sea era Deus and the Beastie’s Check Your Head – high praise indeed. As Rob has suggested, it is charming and fun, like the kid in school that makes everyone else laugh just by showing up, it all seems effortless.
My only gripe was the 15 minute Noel Gallagher sullied jamathon. Some long songs seem vital (Marquee Moon, Halleluwah, Sister Ray), others outstay their welcome. This one could have ended after 5 minutes!
Graham listened: What a revelation this was. I just about knew that Norman Cook had reinvented Brimful of Asha in to a hit but suppose I just thought that might be the only interesting thing Cornershop were capable of. No need to study to hard on this, just sit back and enjoy a groovy, funny, cultural mash-up that ensues from the beginning.
A real, between the eyes reminder, of the value of DRC!
Nick listened: I actually really liked the 15-minute Noel G-powered ragga-drone-groove-thing. As an album this was all over the place and difficult to get hold of mentally, but thoroughly enjoyable. I vaguely recalled a couple of the singles from the time it came out, and recalled it being moderately well-received, but it had pretty much evaporated from my memory over the intervening years. I own When I Was Born… (and recall the shop assistant in Northampton Spinadisc being visibly pleased to sell it to me when I was at university) but have barely listened to it in 15 years, which makes for a weird kind of ‘what if’ sensation with the band when presented with later work which is just as good but not blessed with a seismic hit single (or three; “Sleep On The Left Side” and “Good Shit” were all over the radio way back when, too, if I recall).