East River Pipe - "Cold Ground" (We Live in Rented Rooms)
For close to 20 years, F.M. “East River Pipe” Cornog has been writing aching, cynical pop songs about New Jersey’s downwardly mobile, as immediately melodic as The Byrds and as ruthlessly bitter as Bukowski. He’s been covered by everyone from For Against to Lambchop to David Byrne, but he only puts out a new album every four or five years and considers himself too volatile to tour. (Much of his inspiration comes from being a homeless drug addict in the years before he found equilibrium in his home studio.) So, he’s not particularly well recognized.
That’s unlikely to change on account of We Live In Rented Rooms, his fifth proper studio dispatch. Nevertheless, this is arguably his finest work, at least since The Gasoline Age, his ’99 ode to petrol-guzzling beaters and strip-mall deadbeats. The new one is similar in scope, but unprecedented in its sound quality. It’s an uncommonly rich record about common poverty.
Unlike his last few slabs, We Live In Rented Rooms has no specific theme. While Garbageheads On Endless Stun was sort of about economics and What Are You On? was ostensibly his drug album, Rented Rooms hits all the familiar buzzers: doomed romance on “Summer Boy,” empty decadence on “When You Were Doing Cocaine,” creative block on “Tommy Made a Movie” and corporate chicanery on “Backroom Deals.” It’s about nothing less than the great American hangover.
Although the lyrics are still blunt and dour, and the narrators remain hopelessly dysfunctional, We Live In Rented Rooms doesn’t feel bitter and petty like much of What Are You On?. It’s less angry and more genuinely sad.
That may have something to do with its dramatically improved production. Cornog must have upgraded his rig, or at least cracked the owner’s manual. It’s still gilded with simple guitar hooks and grounded in cheap synths, but the textures are richer and the reverb is more haunting. It’s the first ERP disc that is significantly more engaging, and sometimes downright psychedelic, through decent headphones.
Yes, Cornog has been on the margins of American indie-pop forever, but it’s never a bad time to discover him. It may be a long time before another one of these collections of misanthropic Pet Shop Boys ballads about suburban burnouts hits the streets, and this one is the perfect introduction.