It would be easy to mock the recent singer/songwriter tendency of adopting an ersatz band name as one’s nom de plume, but it’s admittedly easier to imagine oneself becoming excited to go buy the new East River Pipe album than it is the new one by F.M. Cornog. One’s given name fails to give any indication of what one’s music is all about, so the band name is useful—especially now, with the endless waves of new bands crashing over us, when many must be ruled out by misguided band name alone (I, for one, am thankful of the time bands such as the Juliana Theory and the Dandy Warhols have saved me). East River Pipe, a name allegedly chosen from Cornog’s grim notion that his music is best likened to raw sewage being flushed away from Manhattan, isn’t merely self-deprecation; it also suggests the value New York, that most commercial of cities, places upon art, how it flushes its artists out of itself and across its rivers to live, a theme which illuminates Garbageheads on Endless Stun. The cover depicts a businessman, complete with suspenders, pinstripe pants, and a cigar, made up as a clown, who would seem to exemplify the “millionaires” Cornog invokes on “Where Does All the Money Go?” and “Millionaires of Doubt”—songs that try to imagine the existence of the wealthy person’s conscience.
Cornog, who was once so destitute that he lived in a Hoboken subway station, must know firsthand the gap between the rich and poor in New York City, and he must be well familiar with the defenses the affluent use to protect and justify their apathy, their self-centered acquisitiveness, and their abnegation of social responsibility. But these songs are never indignant, they are not even peeved—like a weakly-hopped beer they only tepidly express ambiguous hints at bitterness, they seem pallid, indistinct. Much of the album has the air of futility about it, as if Cornog feels suffocated by his sense of the immutable status quo.
This resignation leads to a restrained, almost lazy musical approach, wherein Cornog uses what sounds like the preprogrammed sounds and beats of a cheap keyboard to realize his sparse, spacious songs. The most obvious reference point for his style would be the recent Flaming Lips albums, which share the same affinity for electronic drums, space-rock sound effects, distant-sounding, echoplexed vocals, and drifting, druggy melodies. But East River Pipe is not psychedelic—the altered state evoked here is more like Klonopin than psilocybin: torpid, indolent, and very likely amnesiac. Often, though, it sounds like he is emulating Leonard Cohen’s (he records albums just as infrequently) recent predilection for chintzy mall-organ sounds and casual, inconsequential arrangements.
While Cohen may have earned the right to be so offhand, since all his albums at this point of his legendary career feel like undeserved gifts, Cornog doesn’t have that commanding reputation. He must earn one’s attention, and this approach, not quite low-fi but not quite tastefully produced in an AOR/Lucinda Williams sort of way, is a daring enough attempt. It is patiently paced, full of subtle changes from major to minor to diminished chords which connote long, cascading sighs of surrender. The limited instrumental scope gives this melancholy music an even more profound pathos, conjuring the lonely feeling of looking into an open distant sky and seeing only one’s own limitations—this intense, sublime feeling suits the skeletal, almost abstract lyrics, compressed to the point where everything seems portentous: open-ended lines like “You want some leeway, but girls on the freeway never go far”, are even richer with suggestion in their musical context. Permeated with an almost inexplicable sadness, Garbageheads on Endless Stun imagines our culture as a machine for generating loneliness and disconnection, a world where one can only desire prostitutes (as on “Streetwalkin’ Jean”) or where one is hermetically sealed off altogether (as on “Arrival Pad #19”). It’s a forbidding vision, but a provocative one.