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East River Pipe

We Live in Rented Rooms

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Merge

Fred Cornog, aka East River Pipe, has never been one to dwell on the sunny side of life. For nearly 20 years now, Cornog has quietly but definitively set to music a world that only life’s most miserable and unfortunate creatures can fully appreciate. To Cornog, life is a landfill, a bitter display of dreams that kill you, pill-poppers and suicide cases, shriveled skin, shady schemes and sewage pipes oozing rancid shit into the waterway. It comes as little surprise, then, that We Live in Rented Rooms, Cornog’s seventh full-length, is far from the shiniest, happiest record in recent memory. What is surprising is that in spite of all his moroseness and morbidity, Cornog still comes across as oddly empathetic as he did when he first began lending his lonely voice to the indie rock world two decades ago.

The whole world is made on backroom deals/ You better get used to it,” Cornog sing-speaks on opening track “Backroom Deals,” a fitting prelude to a record whose cast of characters includes cons and killers, the angel of death, self-piteous coke fiends, cold-hearted ex-lovers hell-bent on payback and even the devil himself raining flames down onto hard-luck losers. “Priests and killers and salesmen hold me/ They follow like rats to the sea,” Cornog laments on “Conman,” while declaring plaintively on “When You Were Doing Cocaine” that, “there’s beauty in hell but that’s no game.” Few artists could get away with such lyrics without sounding like Bukowski-aping killjoys, but Cornog – whose past is riddled with drug and alcohol abuse, manic depression and homelessness – comes across as entirely genuine.

It’s easy to lose sight of the record’s various hooks and melodies in light of Cornog’s grim and grimy poetics, but the artist again proves a viable one-man band, constructing walls of fuzzy folk and electric clatter, using only a home mini-studio. Rented Rooms‘ songs work best when the bleak subject matter is set against mid-tempo, pop-friendly arrangements (“I Don’t Care About Your Blue Wings” and “The Flames are Coming Back,” most notably) that add a leaner dimension to the record’s heaviness. Other times, less is more, as the simple acoustic strums and echo effects of “Conman” add to the song’s haunting, melancholic temperament. Some moments are more forgettable – “Summer Boy” has a chamber-rock-on-lithium vibe, while the overly polished soft rock ballad “Tommy Made a Movie” is a bit of a misfit – but overall, the record’s engrossing moments (a la the scintillating electric guitar riffs on “Cold Ground”) outweigh the occasional misfire by far.

What might surprise new listeners is that the Fred Cornog of Rented Rooms actually sounds more comfortable with life in general than ever before. Hell, the last time we heard from him, on What Are You On? in 2006, he was spewing such venomous lines as, “The money flows, the girls are young/ Your slaves row fast into the sun/ And you say/ Shut up and row you stupid fucks/ Shut up and row.” It might be a distinction without much difference, but at least the animosity has been replaced by brooding. In recent interviews, he’s even indicated that his life is blissfully normal (dude works at Home Depot 40 hours a week and has a wife, kid and dog) and his demons are at bay. Still, I suspect he’ll always remember that there’s beauty in hell. I just hope he never forgets how to translate that hell into some pretty cool music.

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