A lot’s happened to Britain since Cornershop last released an album. A lot that’s not good if you’re a left-leaning, second generation immigrant married to a French woman, like band frontman and driving force Tjinder Singh. One might therefore have expected England Is A Garden to be an angrier, more confrontational record than it is – a return to the early punky days of England’s Dreaming, maybe? “Shut up shop, get on the streets and fight the powers that be!” as Singh shouted then.
But no. Having dabbled with all manner of collaborations on recent output, England Is A Garden throws us back to the sound that made them – a 90s indie take on the ’65 – ’75 Golden Age of British rock, with Indian flourishes.
It’s groovy, man, and thanks to Singh’s penchant for hyper-repetitive choruses, very catchy. There’s politics, of course. St Marie Under Canon tackles colonialism: “Boots black, boots black / It’s the story of charge and attack… God bless ’em as we do blow the hell out of ’em”. And Everywhere That Wog Army Roam “…policemen follow them”. But it’s so poppily delivered, you’ll find your foot blithely tapping along to tales of oppression. The latter in particular is a dangerously infectious piece of 60s bubblegum pop which, as a white man, you have to stop yourself inadvertently singing out loud.
Singh hasn’t lost his ear for nursery-rhyme simple hooks like the one which made Brimful Of Asha so ubiquitous back then and so unbearable now. Plenty of these tracks have the potential to bust your brain the same way. The Holy Name has you humming along in no time, but it’s nine minutes long with massed chorus and squelchy keyboard. Give it a few plays and you may actually be calling on the Almighty to intervene to get it out of your skull.
Singh still loves a glam rock stomper too. See the T-Rex-y strut of No Rock Save In Roll, a close relation of 2002 single Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III, which pays homage to the musical heritage of his birthplace – “In England’s Midlands there’s a drop forge that makes Midlands England glow… heavy metal from the back of the stage”. Nostalgic sound, nostalgic lyrics.
History has moved in Cornershop’s favour. They still seem vital while Britpop has long seemed tawdry. The silvery-sideburned Singh – always a rare, even lone, British Asian voice in indie circles – now seems statesmanlike and indie-godfatherly. And lest we forget, this is the band that were burning Morrissey posters in ’92 before the cool kids got into it. The retro sound hasn’t moved on, but you can’t argue with a decent tune.