East River Pipe – The Gasoline Age (reissued, Merge Records)
Another in the most welcome series of reissues from Merge Records to celebrate its 25th birthday.
East River Pipe is the recording moniker of FM Cornog of New York and he would be the definition of cult – highly regarded by other musicians, critically acclaimed over but unknown to the majority of the population.
I came across the name first, I think, through Stewart Lee’s album reviews sometime in the 1990s, and through the advocacy and cover versions of labelmate Kurt Wagner of Lambchop (Cornog’s songs have also been covered by David Byrne, The Mountain Goats, Okkervil River and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, among many others).
This album was originally released in 1999 and features a host of unbeatable pop songs, unforgettable melodies and vignettes at every turn. It is also a concept album of sorts, about the automobile and its iconic place in the hearts of Americans, offering a chance of love, prestige, freedom, redemption and all sorts.
These are home recordings dressed in simple 3-chord guitar patterns for the most part, with rudimentary (although often cavernous and sinister) drum machines and some choice synth support. If anything, the plain and unfussy arrangements add an extra layer of emotion to the songs about strivers, drifters and losers. There are so many great moments, there’s no way around making a list.
The deadpan brilliance of opener ‘Shiny shiny pimpmobile’ shows genius immediately, an airy, high tone synth carrying the sense of delusions of grandeur.
The haunting ballad ‘Cybercar’, with a terrific 2-note guitar part and Philip K Dick-esque storyline.
‘Wholesale lies’ is like some fabulous Big Star outtake, all thrilling trebly acoustics and strident vocals.
There’s the gorgeous ‘My little rainbow’, a lovely, loose country lead at the centre.
And the wonderfully evocative ‘Party drive’ with these lines, the epitome of street poetry -
“a joint for me, pills for you
summer nights, no cops in sight
it’s a party drive”
‘King of nothing never’ (covered by Lambchop on the album What another man spills) is another gorgeous fuzzy guitar jangle serenading loss and over too soon.
The glorious ‘All you little suckers’ even has a touch of AM radio to it, harmonies from The Beach Boys and a chord sequence from Bread.
The sublime guitar uplift on ‘Astrofarm’.
The heartbreak of ‘Atlantic City (Gonna make a million tonight)’, it’ll get you right in the ribs.
That’s not the half of it. The songs are special, from start to finish. Throughout, Cornog’s voice has more than a shade of the wry world weariness of Dean Wareham about it, such a poignant instrument. And the songs have a distinct and enduring literary quality, conjuring vivid imagery in every line.
It’s a tremendous album, for filing between Lambchop and Silver Jews, and deserving of a place in every record collection.