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East River Pipe
We Live In Rented Rooms Wyndham Wallace , February 23rd, 2011 10:45

In Washington in late October 2010, Jon Stewart took to the stage at the end of what was self-consciously called the Rally to Restore Sanity, a march designed to counter right wing nutjob Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally two months earlier. Its purpose was to remind the country, and perhaps the world, that America is not solely populated by Sarah Palin-loving, gun-toting, racist, creationist, war-mongering, SUV-driving reactionaries. These people, Stewart believed, were simply the ones making the loudest noise, whipped up into a frenzy by a 24 hour news cycle that suggested the country had just been taken over by a Socialist, Marxist, Fascist, Muslim terrorist president who’d not even been born in America. The majority – decent, tolerant, peace-loving – remained unheard, inevitably by virtue of being decent, tolerant and peace-loving. Or, as majorities so often are when extremism is masked by patriotism, by remaining silent, hoping that common sense will prevail.

Stewart’s speech was conveniently encapsulated by one sentence, the kind of rhetorical flourish that has made him a household name amongst the liberal-minded. “If we amplify everything,” he said, “we hear nothing.” What made this line resonate is that it is true on so many levels, a simple philosophy that can be applied to 21st Century life across the board. If everyone is shouting, no one will be heard. And if that’s true of political life, and if one can say such a thing without wishing to diminish the broader, more important issues that provoked Stewart, it’s also true of music. We are living in a world in which, as we all know, music is omnipresent, always within our grasp, always within earshot. Its commercial success or failure is frequently dictated not by its quality but by the power of the forces marketing it, and its ability to reach an audience depends largely upon its novelty factor or the existence of a story that offers the media an alternative to that eternal problem of how to write about music. Since that is, as the age old phrase suggests, as hard as “dancing about architecture”, then providing coverage for inter-band spats, or acts with only a drummer and a guitarist, offers as simple a solution as, for instance, shouting about traitors instead of addressing the complex political issues raised by Wikileaks.

East River Pipe, however, is an anomaly, and a welcome one at that. If ever a musician existed who refuses to “amplify everything”, it is the man behind the name: Fred ‘F.M.’ Cornog. So quiet has his career been, in fact, that few have heard of him, though he’s gathered together a small and devoted fanbase. Even the editors of this esteemed organ were unaware of his existence, despite the fact he’s been recording and releasing records for the best part of two decades, despite the fact that he’s now signed to one of the hippest indie rock labels in the world, Merge, and despite the fact that his music has been covered by such diverse luminaries as David Byrne, Mountain Goats and Lambchop, who recorded three of his songs for 1997’s Thriller. Furthermore, it’s despite the fact that his ‘story’ is pretty amazing: a formerly homeless drug addict who had spent time living in an Hoboken subway, Cornog was introduced by a mutual friend to a woman who recognised his talent and set him up with recording gear, took on his management, founded a label for him, and finally married him. (They now, in a particularly Disney-esque turn of events, have an eight year old child together.) Cornog, however, has barely played live, barely attempts to cultivate a following, and continues to work in his local New Jersey Home Depot. He’s simply kept turning out records with slowly decreasing regularity, the latest of which is his seventh, We Live In Rented Rooms.

It’s unlikely to change much in terms of his profile. All around him, labels and managers and PRs are screaming about the groundbreaking brilliance of their charges, while Cornog quietly clocks in and out of his day job like the central character in the album’s opening song, ‘Backroom Deals’, returning to his home studio to craft inscrutably beautiful songs about life’s rejects, his music barely a whisper. But his records are as welcome and intimate as pillow talk, something that’s intrinsically personal. They’re not meant to rise above the clamour: they’re there for when all the other noise becomes too much. East River Pipe stands apart from fashion and scenes to offer, quite simply, a relief.

Cornog’s songs, lush yet lofi, are built from the most fragile of materials: chiming guitars, simple keyboard melodies, stripped back drum patterns, one finger basslines and a plaintive vocal that delivers lines of poignant succinctness. Early records were released in the UK by Sarah, and the sense of unadorned purity that lay at the heart of the label’s aesthetic remains intact. But that’s not to say that there’s anything remotely twee in what he does, just as there’s nothing ostentatious or elaborate in his work: it in fact connects precisely because there’s nothing to distract from its central purpose of communicating emotions and stories.

But though Cornog’s songs document characters from the fringe, there’s little that’s bitter either. Cornog is an observer, not unlike photographer Martin Parr, who leaves us to make our own judgements and even, perhaps awkwardly, recognise ourselves in his portraits. There’s ‘Backroom Deals’, whose protagonist “go(es) to work every day and grease(s) the wheel”, who knows he “better get used to it” because “the whole world is built on backroom deals”. With just the barest of instrumentation – a beat that treads wearily towards the end of the song, keyboards that shimmer like a sunset against which a guitar traces lines like distant planes in the sky – he draws a picture of a downtrodden life that invites no pity and most likely resounds with anyone who takes the time out to listen. On ‘I Don’t Care About Your Blue Wings’ he tells a tale, over lilting, mournful accompaniment, of a couple who travel “left on Dead Meat Avenue / right on Wet Nurse Lane / straight on Anthill Boulevard / (to) get some sugar cane”. Their dead end lives confirm that “most things just don’t work and it’s not worth the fight”, and their comfort that “you got those blue wings, those beautiful blue wings” is wryly undermined by Cornog’s muttered “bullshit” before he admits, “I don’t care about your blue wings”. Similarly, ‘Tommy Made A Movie’ reads like an enigmatic short story, its central character full of creative ambition but who instead “clicked on the computer / watched some porno on his bed”. Tommy, like all of Cornog’s creations, is of course far from unique.

‘When We Were Doing Cocaine’ represents the record’s biggest musical step from Cornog’s template, its piano chords recalling the work of Jimmy Webb, Todd Rundgren and Warren Zevon, its lyric a candid exploration of the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1970s. “You brought the waitresses home when you were doing cocaine”, Cornog sings, adding that, “when I was kissing your girl she didn’t mind at all”. ‘Payback Time’, meanwhile, begins with a childlike glockenspiel melody and then, as Cornog picks slight guitar notes over the quietest of keyboard backing, sketches out a series of beautifully poised images to illustrate the nature of sexual politics: one character “buys you everything he thinks you want / but after food and wine and small talk on the Rhine / he says it’s payback time”, while “John Paul took you on long cross-country trips / yeah, Voltaire and Kierkegaard fell from his lips of steel / but something went awry”. (Extra credit is surely due to anyone who can successfully namecheck Kierkegaard, especially in such a sardonic fashion, during a pop song.) Only in the final instrumental coda, which takes up a third of this 200 second song, is there the mildest hint of distaste, of frustration, as guitar chords distort beneath another unfussy keyboard line.

Even the album’s title speaks volumes about the album’s contents. These are character sketches, like Steinbeck’s, about those who dream the dream but whose waking life won’t let them live it. They’re the people that populate America (and, most likely, every society on earth) but who get left behind, the people who are never heard. Like a bedroom early Springsteen, Cornog understands that the truth lies in the observation of his countrymen rather than the preaching of a gospel. His characters aren’t Sarah Palin-loving, gun-toting, racist, creationist, war-mongering, SUV-driving reactionary caricatures, and nor are they slick, hip, Obama-loving, tofu-eating, Mac-owning, Huffington Post-reading liberal wets. They’re just people that grease the wheel: unsung heroes, lowlife villains, sometimes a little bit of both. They’re the ones you see all around you but probably never notice because no one ever shouts about them and no one hears them shout. They are, most likely, a little bit of you: complex, frustrated, getting by. But they’re people we should be listening to, and if Cornog amplifies anything it’s merely their voices, albeit still suitably meek and mild, avoiding melodrama to let the smallest of details speak for itself. If you listen carefully, you can hear the whole world in his work.