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East River Pipe

The man behind East River Pipe is F.M. Cornog, and he is, without question, one of those artists whose biography serves greatly to illuminate his music, so here's the story: After a difficult childhood in New Jersey, Cornog in his early 20s was a self-taught musician going nowhere fast. After a series of dead end jobs and a quick descent into alcoholism, he wound up homeless, sleeping on a bench at the Hoboken, NJ train station. It was there that he met Barbara Powers, who became his girlfriend and set him up with a home studio in Astoria, Queens, near the Hell Gate bridge. Cornog named his project after the river the bridge spans, self-deprecatingly imagining a connection between his music and the waste flushed into the East River, and named his label after the bridge itself.

This was all back around 1990. Over the next few years Cornog began releasing home cassette recordings. Thanks to critical attention from U.K. music mag Melody Maker, legendary twee label Sarah Records signed Cornog in 1994, leading to the re-release of his early home recordings as Shining Hours in a Can. After another album on Sarah, Poor Fricky (1995), Cornog signed with Merge Records, where he has released two more LPs, Mel (1996) and The Gasoline Age (1999). In 2002, Merge again reissued Cornog's first song collection, Shining Hours in a Can.

The music itself? Surprisingly exquisite and lush, considering its lo-fi origins, occasionally even recalling Big Star's rich golden pop. Cornog creates winsome singer/songwriter compositions from voice, guitar, and drum machine, but then smoothes and polishes the edges with layers of shimmering, beautifully rendered synths. His melancholy voice aches with sublime resignation throughout each piece. Unhappiness is a general theme throughout East River Pipe's short (usually less than three minutes) songs, but by no means unhappiness of the self-indulgent "poor me" variety; rather, Cornog seems to focus on the excruciating weight of the accumulated burdens life lays on you and the need to somehow struggle on, painting his weary pictures in short, subtle strokes.

Cornog is also a "satellite member" of the kooky Nashville-based space-country ensemble Lambchop. "Baltimore" is an unreleased track available only on Tape Op Magazine's Creative Music Recordings compilation. The song is available from Tiny Telephone, a San Francisco recording studio and MP3 hub. The luminous "Make a Deal with the City," meanwhile, appeared on the first East River Pipe collection, the Merge-reissued Shining Hours in a Can. It shows the way Cornog from the very beginning was able to transcend his lo-fi recording environment to create graceful, rich, introspective pop songs.