ARTS

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April 2, 2002

Shining Rivers In a Can: East River Pipe

Some people are built for fame. Most, however, are not. You get the impression that F.M. Cornog, longtime resident of Queens and, before that, allegedly, a station bench in Hoboken, could become famous overnight, and still be sipping the filthy waters of the river that underlies his music.

East River Pipe is Cornog's project. It's music that, while cool and spacious, inevitably rides the rough current of Cornog's own biography. A self-taught musician from New Jersey, Cornog grappled with despair, alcohol, mental illness, a dead-end job at a light-bulb factory, and, apparently, destitution, before sobering up to record music—as he still does—on a Tascan 388 mini-studio at home.

One may ask what sort of music spills out to accompany such a bad turn of events. Well, the answer is East River Pipe. And it isn't. One would expect songs of misery and woe, but the imagery that Cornog's songs espouse is that of an idealist: taking whatever's around, ugly though it is, and squeezing it so tight that the beauty spills out. Like a character out of a Kerouac novel who looks past his penniless existence to see an open road and a sky full of stars, Cornog takes the prosaic world of used cars and liquor stores as close to the light as they'll ever get.

In this fashion, Shining Hours in a Can is an album that celebrates the city, but at the same time dwells incessantly on the trampling down and humiliation of those caught beneath its wheels. Depressing? Perhaps, but Cornog's musical style music—whimsical and melodic—casts a warmth on the songs that underscores sympathy and fragility.

For recordings that are lo-fi by process, those of East River Pipe could almost be described as lush. Indeed, Shining Hours captures an acoustic sound marked by layered guitar strumming, echoed guitar slides, and sparse, often acoustic, drumbeats. This sound shines best on tracks like "My Life is Wrong," more reminiscent of late-'80s U2 than of Cornog's lo-fi contemporaries.

Thematically, "Silhouette Town" crystallizes the reconciliation Cornog pitches for desperation and optimism with lines like, "My mother's singing requiems / at the Methodist church / my father's downstairs making love / to nazis in the dirt / I've got to see my pharmacist / at the liquor store / a couple six-packs and / I won't think anymore," all sung along to a jangly, acoustic, all-too happy, 3-minute pop song.

The album's highlights come early with the ethereal "Make a Deal with the City," and the finely restrained "Axl or Iggy." The former effervesces with subtle electric guitar plucking; bringing to mind elements of sometime label-mates the Field Mice. "You live in this city, / make a deal with the city now," it quietly urges. Meanwhile the charged "Axl or Iggy" begins gently and with control, then opens up into fully realized message of disenchantment: "You thought you were Axl / or Iggy / but you were nothing / like that... / but you looked good / with a bottle / and you smiled / like a little brat."

It should be known that Shining Hours is in fact a reissue of East River Pipe's first full-length album, a collection of singles that had previously appeared (ostensibly on 7") on Cornog's own Hell's Gate label, as well as the celebrated, now defunct, Sarah Records. For a set of early, homemade recordings, Shining Hours of course has moments when ambition is undermined by technological limitation, and some tracks come out sounding like demos for grander productions. For the most part though, the collection stands up to its age and economy, and is sincere (especially considering how many lo-fi bands go out of their way to achieve that special recorded-in-a-toilet sound).

With a tight sound, a strong songwriting sensibility, and even a coherent theme transcending its many releases, it seems like only time until East River Pipe finds its wider audience. In an ideal world, this may be the case; however it is more likely that Cornog's project falls within the unfortunate class of bands that release a late album of genuine strength, only to have it lauded as best "debut album" rather than the culmination of a contiguous body of work.

It's this anonymity that has kept Cornog on the barest periphery of a lo-fi scene that has otherwise gleaned—and lost—attention from the mainstream. But it is also an anonymity so inherent to the music itself, so instrumental in its inception, that one might even imagine a terrible hardening of the music if it ever saw the limelight.

Whatever the case, East River Pipe and its reclusive mastermind may soon face the tough test of wider recognition. The Gasoline Age (1999) broke through at least some of the tough outer shells of the mainstream music press and this reissue of Shining Hours should only serve to reaffirm the quality of the music at hand. The question that remains, therefore, is whether the elusive Mr. Cornog will even notice, or whether he'll keep right on trawling the muddy depths of the East River for that special tune.