New Bums’ full-length debut, Voices in a Rented Room, sounds like it was written and recorded during the alcoholic fugue state of a lost weekend, inspired by the roomy strums and mordant narratives of Bob Dylan’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack and the second side of Guns N’ Roses’ G N’ R Lies. It’s loose and sparse, with a cocky confidence that comes with letting the music be something small, not filling all the space with reverb or gratuitous instrumentation. There’s a commitment to showcasing the songs themselves, even when the lyrics are as silly as “You only get fucked in Pigeon Town” and “Your girlfriend might be police.”
The album’s title may be descriptive of its creation, but it’s also a cheeky nod to other wry indie-folk albums, including East River Pipe’s We Live in Rented Rooms and Silver Jews’ “How to Rent a Room” (New Bums’ pop pluck and dark country-rock ethos recalls the sensibilities of both artists). Band members Ben Chasny and Donovan Quinn’s dual lead vocals are wispy, but crisp in enunciation and acerbic in tone when necessary. Chasny, a master guitarist whose playing is at the forefront of his other projects (including Six Organs of Admittance and Rangda) adds occasional flourishes to the unfussy, largely acoustic backdrop playing.
Early reviews have compared Voices in a Rented Room to Big Star’s Third. What differentiates them, though, is the latter’s sense of rock-bottom defeat. New Bums don’t carry that kind of baggage. The bleakness of “Sometimes You Crash” and the way it threatens to fall apart at any moment are red herrings; Chasny and Quinn are fully aware they’re on the upswing of their respective career trajectories. It’s as close to optimistic as a downer record gets.
At 37 minutes, Voices in a Rented Room is too short to be functional as, say, a Saturday-night comedown album, as it’s over before the listener can fully absorb its impact. The longest track, “Black Bough,” is, incidentally, the most memorable of the bunch, maintaining its drowsy impressionism on top of a tight, drum-driven arrangement. “Your Bullshit” is one of the album’s few rockers, though “rock” is relative. Here, it means an off-kilter electric solo and a low-slung riff that doubles the rhythm of the drums.
Voices in a Rented Room is commendable for making freak folk so taut and to the point, so maybe hoping to hear sprawling, extended jam versions of these songs is looking a gift horse in the mouth. It’s a fine album that reveals more about the band’s humor and skill with each new listen.