Slide Shining Hours in a Can into your CD player and fill your room with a jangly independent pop of understated sweetness that’s hard to resist. Look closely at the liner notes and you may be surprised to discover that you’ve been transported back to 1994; Merge Records has just reissued this hard-to-find East River Pipe CD. And 2002 is better off for it.
There are two good reasons for calling this musical creature bedroom pop, as an astute critic before me did. First, that’s where it was recorded, essentially—by Fred Cornog, performing and recording all by himself, in a corner of his apartment, on a Tascam mini-388 studio. Second, it’s quietly cozy, personal with the freedom of self that comes from being safe and at home. Not that it doesn’t rock out, but it feels close, intimate. On this record, it’s as if Cornog has decided to trust his listeners enough to be completely open and unpretentious. Unpretentiousness certainly doesn’t run rampant in the rock world.
Fred Cornog, though, isn’t your typical rock performer for many reasons: for starters, he rarely plays live. Maybe he doesn’t act like a rock performer because never imagined himself as a working musician; he certainly got there by a roundabout route. Lousy jobs in off-the-beaten path industries (carpet warehouse, light bulb factory, pipe fitting) paired with serious alcohol consumption eventually found him homeless and broke. Legend has it that while sleeping in a Hoboken train station, he met a woman who would become his girlfriend, encourage his musical gifts, and even buy him that mini-studio. After self-releasing some tapes, his first vinyl release, “Helmet On”, was acclaimed Single of the Week by Melody Maker.
This landed him a deal with esteemed British indie Sarah Records, and those early Sarah tracks—including “Helmet On”—are what you’ll hear on this reissue, plus three previously unreleased songs.
The music skitters across the indie pop landscape. “Helmet On” starts out dreamy, then busts out into feedbacky splendor, a little Belle and Sebastian, a little Bowie. “Make a Deal With the City” begins with a soft sparkling guitar riff that draws the song along like a lifeline. “Axl or Iggy” aches with a pained chorus while swimming in wonderfully strumming guitars. In “Silhouette Town”, he turns the story of a crappy family into a sing-along folk ballad that gleams with synthetic horns.
The music of each song is distinct: drum lines vary and bobble, guitars echo and tighten down. The synths rarely sound keyboard-y: instead, they shimmer like a guitar that’s been polished with ever-finer grains of sandpaper. The whole is more organic than electronic, and while the layers are carefully laid, the result is anything but slick.
While East River Pipe made a splash in England and stirred up some major label interest in America, it’s probably too much to say that a band that remained fairly obscure was an influence. But at the very least it was an antecedent. This record was recorded almost a decade before the current generation of home recording geniuses like Marc Bianchi (Her Space Holiday) began holing up with their musical toys, writing genuinely beautiful music while managing its complicated production. It was recorded while Elliott Smith was still embroiled in the melody vs. punk rock trio Heatmiser; Cornog was 3000 miles away masking lyrics of unhappiness with sweet and simple melodies.
Maybe this is the best reason for this record to be re-released: if it wasn’t an influence, maybe it should have been. It probably still could be.
There is something in the breezy, miserable unpretentious enthusiasm of Shining Hours in a Can that makes 1994 seem like a much better time than, say, the summer of 2002. But maybe it foretells a better future.