Cornershop: Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast

After a seven-year break, it's business as unusual for Cornershop

Those marvelling this week at the Horrors' journey from music press joke to Mercury prize nominees have a point: six months ago, it would have seemed hilarious and terrifying, like giving the Richard Dimbleby Award for Outstanding Personal Contribution to Factual Television to Vernon Kaye for All Star Family Fortunes. But the Horrors' career curve comes with a kind of precedent, in the shape of Cornershop.

They began life as a sort of race-relations wing of the riot grrrl movement, publicly burning posters of Morrissey and releasing records on curry-coloured vinyl. Despite the political stance, there were suggestions that something rang false: for some reason, the music press decided that frontman Tjinder Singh was lying about guitarist Avtar Singh being his brother, which possibly tells you less about Cornershop than it does about the paucity of real news in the music press circa 1992.

The situation was compounded by their live performances, which evinced a kind of aggressive incompetence. You were inexorably reminded of punks talking about seeing the Slits or the young Siouxsie and the Banshees, boggling at the fact that a band who apparently couldn't play at all had dared get up on stage: it wasn't so much the feeling that Cornershop were in a grand amateur tradition, more the sneaking suspicion that compared to the racket Singh and co made on a rough night, the Slits and the young Banshees probably sounded like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

And yet, a couple of years later, Cornershop were nominated for the Mercury prize for When I Was Born for the 7th Time: they were not the only people in the late 90s to try melding indie rock, hip-hop, electronica and Indian music, but they were the only ones who made it sound like fun. Then they became pop stars by mistake – courtesy of Norman Cook's chart-topping remix of Brimful of Asha – a state of affairs Tjinder Singh seemed to welcome with the enthusiasm people normally reserve for unexpectedly large tax demands. They eventually went into semi-retirement: Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast is the first Cornershop album in more than seven years.

An air of relaxation permeates the proceedings: there's none of the sparky urgency that marked When I Was Born for the 7th Time, which was the sound of a band realising that they'd finally got it, and excitedly rushing to get it down on tape before they forgot what it was. For further evidence of their more low-key approach, you could compare the respective albums' 60s covers. When I Was Born for the 7th Time's version of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood turned the original's appropriation of the sitar on its head by performing the song in Punjabi, but Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast's cover of Manfred Mann's cover of Bob Dylan's Quinn the Eskimo is done dead straight, evidently for no other reason than they like the song.

And yet there are plenty of moments that suggest a uniquely slanted take on pop music: "I'm Phil Fearon," sings Singh on The Constant Spring, "and you are Galaxy", surely the first time the forgotten 80s Brit-soul singer and his backing band have been evoked in the service of what seems to be a song about the unstoppable flow of creativity. Equally, it seems safe to say that no one predicted that 2009 would bring with it a two-minute disco track commemorating the July 1981 Southall riot, during which British Asian youths righteously beat the crap out of National Front skinheads, but that's what happens on Shut Southall Down.

At root, the album's sound is based on that of T Rex – which means tracks such as the splendidly-named Who Fingered Rock'n'Roll? and Soul School are tautly chugging pop songs – but intriguingly bizarre arrangements abound. The title track appears to feature that most rock'n'roll of instruments, a bassoon. The gorgeous Free Love sets tamboura and sitar against electronics, strings and a trombone.

In fairness, there are moments here when Cornershop sound too relaxed for their own good, when the songwriting slips out of gear and starts to ramble on: at some point during the last seven years, Operation Push apparently mislaid its tune, while over 16 minutes of the gospel closer The Turned On Truth definitely errs on the side of pushing one's luck. It might not be the kind of explosive statement that people once expected Cornershop to make, but Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast is clever and engaging, happily detached from the mainstream – an admirable way to continue down an improbable career path.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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