In the world of pop music, where so much moves so quickly, and fluctuation and hybridization are considered winning traits, there’s something to be said for solidity and insularity. Willfully doing your own thing away from spotlights, trends, and outside influences can lead to a relatively static sound. Yet that also means that in your body of work, you can probe into the edges and corners of that one sound more completely and thoroughly—thoughtfully, even—than if you were always looking ahead for the next thing. East River Pipe is a case study in that. Working full-time, having a family, making music in your spare time and not touring—perhaps these play a role in how fully his music lives in, and explores, one place.
We Live in Rented Rooms, F.M. Cornog’s seventh album as East River Pipe, seems particularly representative, meaning it walks familiar ground but does so with deep steps. It sounds like he’s been spending a lot of time at home probing ever further into what he’s set up under the East River Pipe name. That is: twilight music with guitar, drum machine, and his hushed singing; a bit of ‘70s soft-pop; a bit of acoustic Neil Young, perhaps; and some of Brian Eno’s most accessible moments. East River Pipe also means songs of people on the other side of America, living quiet lives of dedication and hard work in the face of a bleak future in a world of deception and frustration.
This worldview is laid out in the first track, “Backroom Deals”. He sings, “Backroom deals / The whole world is made on backroom deals”. We’d “better get used to it”, is the message. (It is reminiscent of one of the best, and earliest, East River Pipe songs, “Make a Deal with the City”). Yet, the message is also that we never will get used to it. We’re screwed, basically, destined to be the have nots and not the haves. It’s impossible to get used to it, but accept it we must. Call this defeatist sunset pop, then…defeatist or realist, depending on your perspective on life.
As a musical entity, East River Pipe seems almost obsessed by the deals you need to make to survive, in love relationships, employment, and life in general. On “Payback Time”, Cornog sings, somewhat ominously, of the way everything is a compromise: “But after food and wine / And small talk on the Rhine / He says it’s payback time”. There’s romance to these deals, but underneath it’s just cold hard facts. In a song with a European air and ocean sounds, he sings, “I’ll be your summer boy / You can fake you love me”. Everything is a deal, or a con. The song “Conman”, with its chorus “Oh, I’m just a conman”, seems an indictment of us all, or maybe just a journalistic description. We’re all making/taking/asking for money, making deals to get what we want.
There’s beauty in this bleakness. This is pretty music, even when it gets apocalyptic with visions of hellfire, as on “The Flames Are Coming Back”. That song is one of the most lush, with the specter of death in the air. The softest song is “Three Ships”. In those ships, is Cornog seeing the promise of a better life? Not really. The song ends the album on a note of redemption of some kind…or not. The promise of heaven, of eternal life, evaporates: “I saw three ships drifting away / They left us nothing / Only highways / And silicone deserts that shine in the night”. These visions of hope slip away, leaving the trappings of modern life, of technology and cities. Those promise the same thing, with their glimmering surfaces. Your iPad, smart phone, and plasma TV promise a better life, some kind of eternal bliss. It’s just another con.