East River Pipe
What Are You On?
Merge
2006
B-



the soft AM-radio rock of the 1970s has ceded its bandwidth to a motley assortment of call-in shows dedicated to sports and right-wing demagoguery, and it now seems to exist mostly as emotional shorthand for a new generation of filmmakers and musicians seeking to evoke a particular set of pastoral reveries. Thus we get a Gary Stewart song backing the temporary utopian refuge of Ken Park’s climactic three-way, while The Brown Bunny soundtrack characterizes the vast Nebraskan plains through which Vincent Gallo drives as the land of a thousand Gordon Lightfoot LPs, growing damp and soggy in gothic farmhouse basements. Meanwhile, everyone from Freedy Johnston to the Elected strives to recreate that coffeehouse strum from the brief mid-70s lull between the fallout of the 60s and the mania of the 80s. It’s not that this approach doesn’t work, as Johnston’s “Bad Reputation” proves, but its overtly self-conscious approach often mediates its emotional impact, as the artifice of historical reenactment is privileged over direct sincerity.

East River Pipe doesn’t quite sound like 70s AM rock; it’s too cheap and unadorned, a one-man-band driven by F.M. Cornog’s trebly guitar, simple keyboards and drum machines, and workmanlike vocals, all recorded on a tried-and-true Tascam 388. But for six albums over 15 years ERP has trafficked in the dreamy dreariness that marked 70s AM rock. To recreate the original phenomenology of that music’s consumption would probably require ethnographic work in a Florida retirement community, but Cornog understands the key to its lingering resonances comes from affectless lyrics that don’t beg for response but instead rely on subdued and wistful presentation to make their implicit points about the plainness of the world.

Did AM stars like Lightfoot bring this existential agenda to the table? Doubtful, very doubtful, but it’s how they’re consumed today, at least by the Gen-X-and-after generations. At its best—which occurs often enough to make it well worthwhile despite its flaws—East River Pipe’s new album What Are You On? taps into a tremendously effective sort of this life-degree-zero style. Pontification-prone French philosopher Jean Baudrillard found the essence of America in a porn star asking another, “what are you doing after the orgy?”, and What is the sound of life decades after an orgy that may or may not have ever happened, a bleak vision of the banality of the functional junkie. Johnny Thunders may have ridden his Chinese rocks into a mythologized blaze of self-destructive glory, but Cornog parlayed his own years of addiction into a blue-collar job at Home Depot, and while nearly every song on the album references drugs, there’s not a single mention of high times and their giddy rush. He’s been traversing this territory since the early 90s (when he glumly reminded himself, “you thought you were Axl or Iggy, but you were nothing like that”), but he continues to get mileage out of it.

On several tracks Cornog expertly conveys that point at which constant desperation gives way to stasis and simply becomes the new norm, and he achieves this with a startling economy of words, music, and running times. “Crystal Queen” depicts a yearning devoid of desire, as Cornog’s eminently hummable melody helps conceal its vague content, which focuses on picking up a meth-head hooker. A few tracks later “I’ll Walk My Robot Home” sounds like the young Alex Chilton working as an in-house songwriter for ABBA, with its sing-song verses punctuated by a three-chord drop straight out of “What’s Going Ahn,” and “Druglife” gently reminds a partner, “If it comes down to the dugs or you, baby, we’re through.” Opening track “What Does T.S. Eliot Know About You” picks a pretty strange literary target through which to dismiss a pretentious friend, but I suppose when you spend this much time trolling for fixes you can’t be expected to keep up with trends and hit a more topical marker of pretense like, say, Michel Houellebecq. Besides, the song gives Cornog one of his best lines, as he chides, “you bought that April stuff” before reminding his companion, “but all those months are equally cruel.”

Alas, What Are You On? offers its own small wasteland, in the form of several filler tracks clustered near the end. There’s the literature of exhaustion, and then there’s just plain exhaustion of ideas, and late-album tracks like “Absolutely Nothing” and “Trivial Things” reflect the latter, sputtering out of the gates and meandering for two-and- a-half minutes without leaving much of an impression. The title track’s reference to Paxil, Zoloft, and Xanax unintentionally dredges up memories of Adam Green mocking a druggy show-off, which deflates the morose feel. For that matter, the clunky title itself sounds like one of those awkward confections J. Mascis used to burden us angsty teens of the 90s with, leaving us to grapple with the gracelessness of phrases like Where You Been and wonder why his titles couldn’t be as cool as the Jesus & Mary Chain’s.

Even in the middle of What Are You On’s declining moments, though, Cornog tosses up “You Got Played, Little Girl,” a delicately pretty lament without sympathy (the narrator did the playing) certain to appear on a Wes Anderson soundtrack in 2024, after it’s had time to ferment and acquire that tinge of cultural nostalgia that keeps 70s AM rock alive for the backward-looking set of the 20-oughts. There’s no reason to wait that long to give the album a listen; like every East River Pipe album (including the overrated Gasoline Age, which somehow became ERP’s “masterpiece” without differing much from the band’s other albums) it’s blemished by imperfections, but Cornog’s lonely, home-recorded drabness goes beyond the “sun, sun, sun” of other retro-oriented musicians to remind us that sunlight reflecting off slabs of urban concrete remains as bleak in 2006 as it was in 1974.


Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-03-09
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