Pipe Dreams

"We're going to nowhere,
Tie my arm off tight
Crack open a tall boy,
Pass me your pipe"
"We're Going to Nowhere,"
F.M. Cornog, East River Pipe

Like an indie-rock incarnation of Raymond Carver, F.M. Cornog is a man who, using few words, has set sail a cast of desolate losers through life's darkest corners and toughest blocks. His charming and modestly constructed pop songs are populated with hard drinkers and junkies, lovesick losers and cold-hearted jerks, street sleepers and insecure mopes. Since he started putting out records on his Hell Gate imprint back in the early Nineties -- all cut solo in his Queens apartment under the fake-band alias East River Pipe -- Cornog has amassed a body of work that includes numerous singles (many of which were compiled in 1994 on the Ajax CD Shining Hours in a Can), and two albums issued on the Merge label in Chapel Hill, last year's Poor Fricky and the recent Mel. Whether held to the tight confines of a seven-inch or given the long-playing room to stretch out a bit, Cornog's work explores his own passel of insecurities and fears, frustrations and tribulations, and the ins and outs of love, dependency, and regret.

If Cornog's songs ring with the clarity and insight of someone who's lived through them, it's because he has: The story goes that, before he hauled out his Tascam 388 ministudio recorder and put his life on tape, he was homeless in New York City, an alcoholic singer/songwriter stumbling on his way to an early grave. He was taken in by Barbara Powers, a friend who had heard his songs, helped clean him up, and formed Hell Gate to release his songs. Early singles such as "Make a Deal with the City" and "Sleeping with Tall Boy" chronicled his miserable past, while "My Life is Wrong," a heartbreaking and beautiful ode to Powers with furiously strummed acoustic guitars and love lines like "You were the two-by-four that cracked me in my head last night," asserted his faith in a better future.

Because he puts out records on small labels and makes music at home on an easy-to-use multitrack machine, Cornog has been lumped in with the avatars of indie-rock's low-fi underground, including Sebadoh, the Grifters, Butterglory, and the hundreds and hundreds of bedroom constructionists who build their music layer by layer, track by track, in insulated, isolated bliss. It's produced some terrific records, but really the low-fi thing is a silly movement, one that is concerned more with how the music is recorded than what the music says, how it works, how it affects you. Too often a crucial point is missed: The best low-fi songs out there -- from Pavement's "Box Elder" to the Grifters' "She Blows Blasts of Static," from Kreamy 'Lectric Santa's "Holdin' Yerself" to Guided by Voices's "Quality of Armor" -- work not because the EQ needle is in the red or because of the sloppy overdubs or the rattle and distortion hanging from the hooks. They work because there's a good song lurking in there among the tape hiss and fuzz. And it's worth noting that many of the genre's greatest practitioners (Pavement, Sebadoh, and the Grifters especially) have over the last couple of years eschewed the crap-rock ethic of low-fi for the more accessible pleasures of relatively high fidelity, if not spit-slick studio polish.

Cornog, though, is neither low-fi disciple nor pop-punk obscurant. His songs are built around familiar guitar lines and vocal hooks, embellished with dabs of keyboard, reverb, and echo, and held together by electronic drum parts that belie the usual robotic nature of the instrument. What's maybe most striking about Cornog's oeuvre is its shameless accessibility, its traditional song-craft roots; he refuses to subvert his songs with blasts of cantankerous dissonance or willful noise, refuses to pander to an audience weaned on obtuse musings and ramshackle kitchen-sink clutter. His are, on the surface at least, simple pop songs, the kind that too often slip quietly into oblivion amid the naive caterwaul of the Beat Happening pop brigade or the howl and wail of teen spirit's loudest purveyors.

That doesn't mean Cornog is indie rock's Mister Nice Guy or the quintessential Sensitive Man (although he is responsible for the most touching of the myriad memorials to Kurt Cobain, "Miracleland," included on last year's Red Hot + Bothered compilation). There's a disturbing undercurrent of angst and self-hate that flows throughout Mel -- from the defeatist sigh of "Beautiful Worn-Out Love" to the darkly funny cover art (a pair of cartoons illustrating the priorities of the average male). Acutely aware of his shortcomings and limitations, as well as his desires and good intentions, Cornog puts them all on the table and sorts through the mental rubble. On "Kill the Action," he uses liquor and anonymous sex to dull the pain of self-loathing; knowing that's wrong, he fesses up in "Guilty As Charged," and promises in "I Am a Small Mistake" to atone for his wrongdoing. Still, the loathing remains: "I'm so dirty and you're so clean," he pleads in "Prettiest Whore," lost in a swirl of ringing, jangle-pop guitars.

No doubt, Mel is a downer, a quiet yelp from the farthest regions of the soul. It would be an exhaustive and exhausting exercise in self-indulgence if Cornog hadn't unloaded his confessions with such subtlety -- subtle, as Raymond Carver once wrote, as a river current. And despite the brutal pain of Mel's best songs, Cornog manages to find hope in that pile of mental rubble. "Life Is Born Today" brings the album to a shimmering close, with Cornog pleading in a broken, earnest voice that only love can break through the cynical chatter that is the "sound of human lives," before fading out with the repeating murmur of the word love, convincing himself that life can be just that simple.


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