F.M. Cornog, the guy behind East River Pipe, is a home-recording O.G. He spent the early-’90s releasing singles and cassettes through Ajax Records, and albums with U.K. label Sarah Records, before finding a long-term home with Merge in 1995. Never one for self-promotion or much touring, Cornog is a sort of tourist in the musical world, sneaking back into it every so often to leave another offering at our feet, only to disappear again back into his own life.
So it is fitting that We Live in Rented Rooms, Cornog’s first record since 2006’s What Are You On?, deals very much in the temporary. As the title suggests, Cornog’s narrators — which may or may not come from his own drug-laden past — don’t have anything of their own. Their only certainty is that what’s happening now, good or bad, will end. In some ways, it’s a continuation of What Are You On?, a scarred, weary reflection following that album’s fresh wounds and raw nerve. Instead of that record’s sneering defensive narrators, we get people resigned to, and often regretting, how little they have.
“It isn’t freezing yet,” Cornog bleats on “Cold Ground,” and that “yet” informs the whole record. The impending chill seems to both fuel these people to feel something now and excuse them for missing the opportunity. Instead of finding their own place, they work merely to line corporate pockets (“Backroom Deals”). They kiss another guy’s girlfriend and take home waitresses (“When You Were Doing Cocaine”), or conceive movies in their head they never film, preferring porn as some fleeting, misguided connection (“Tommy Made a Movie”). These songs can be harrowing, but they’re not all defeat. This isn’t fatalism so much as a sort of hardscrabble reality. The references to the extremes coming — sometimes a freeze, sometimes fire — also hint at feeling, at a break in the numbness these people so desperately want to shake off.
Musically, you’re not likely to find anything new in Cornog’s sound. The synthesizers provide a miasmic (and fitting) frost to these songs. In fact, as the album drifts forward, it’s hard to explain exactly what is so alluring about East River Pipe. Like the other albums, this one chugs at mid-tempo, and even when Cornog’s nasal voice is at its most strident, these songs don’t call attention to themselves. Perhaps it is his sharp eye for detail, his subtle questions about hope and loss here, that make this set seem fresh. Because, though a couple songs linger a minute too long, the ice-floe pace of this record actually works in its favor.
Like their creator, the 10 songs that make up We Live in Rented Rooms won’t demand you listen to them. But the more these songs play, the more layers they reveal. That feeling these people are waiting for — the one Cornog seems to want for them — it comes out by degrees the more we hear these songs. They may chill you, or they may burn you. But either way, they’ll quietly leave their mark.