Well-Written Beats


Why is this “beat-based” pairing of Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres not credited to Cornershop? Answer: Why was Beck’s Mutations promoted as not actually the follow-up to Odelay? Answer: When albums scrap the songbook approach for run-on conceptualism, doesn’t much of the fun involve their screwing with our definition of an album? Answer: So that makes this a kind of narrative warping, a form of metafiction? Answer: Isn’t the governing inspiration more likely DJ culture, which as it extends to full-length recordings staves off tedium with all manner of stylistic gimcrackery? Answer: So rockers are threatened because in a global music economy technoids are undercutting their production costs? Answer: Well, what about cassette culture, and didn’t Sebadoh III attain classic status with one song and a bunch of weird little almost-songs? Answer: That’s indie rock. Quit talking about goddamn indie rock.

Disco & the Halfway to Discontent exploits any number of modern touches, but its hand-clapped, human-drummed pulse evokes disco back when it was called disco. More specifically, it evokes rockers back then trying to go disco. As a dance record it has its problems (lame-ass Daft Punk rip on “Before the Fizz Is Gone,” for instance), except for “Buttoned Down Disco,” which is based on a catchy sample like real music. As a normal record, it lacks a “Jullandar Shere” or “Brimful of Asha”: a hit, or something trying to be. But as a contemporary record, an experiment in how little energy Singh, who also threw off many Cornershop cuts, need exert to imprint himself on a series of prefab grooves (he even chants the printed acknowledgments through a vocoder on “Hip-Hop Bricks”), it’s strikingly successful. Put it on in mixed company—people who care and people who wouldn’t—and it warms the room.

Singh’s rhetoric-spew here with Clinton has him reminding disco of its past as a music of discontent, and some lyrics are clipboard political in a lightheadedly Godardian manner. But beat surrender or no, his sounds still have a breezy “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” lilt—no melancholy stretched-out minor chords. And the supporting cast of caricatures is just as convivial: stupid-fresh chants, sexy female vocalists, mood-altered power chords and horn sections, deliberately wobbly scratching, buckets of vintage soul keyboard uplifting the winning near-gospel diptych of “The Hot for May Sound” and “Sing Hosanna.” A mix of English, French, Indian, robot, and B-boy voices, the album is internationalist in a way that feels deeply local. Like all Singh’s work, it’s an updated, scrubbed re-creation of the mixed-race London underground captured best in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Political, sure, but also “dimply,” as Pauline Kael described Roland Gift in that film.

Years ago, folks debated why rock offered lousy poetry but great lyrics, the answer being that, played off against the music and the times, the words said plenty. A similar argument might be made to explain how an album like this one is lousy disco but a good listening experience. Singh can make a little snippet like “Saturday Night & Dancing” convey the sense of a punter’s changing same with a few choice lyrics. His drive to tweak the connectedness/disconnectedness semiotics of his throwaways, as deep as electronica whizzes’ need to tweak their sounds, livelies up his CD into something worth having on. I don’t want to pretend that Disco & the Halfway to Discontent is anything more than make-work, as Singh waits for inspiration worthy of the name Cornershop. (Which may or may not come.) But it’s the kind of album I’m coming to appreciate more and more—proof of how literacy exerts itself in the most unlikely ways.