Cex
Actual Fucking
2006
C+



in late 2003, I went to see Rjyan Kidwell, a.k.a. Cex, play a show in Baltimore. At the time, he had just released two albums within the space of six months, Being Ridden and Maryland Mansions. And after years of filling live sets with material from albums that hadn’t been released yet and restlessly changing the format and genre of his performances, he finally seemed to be hitting a wall. For the first time, he’d begun incorporating a drummer and other live instruments into his shows, which had previously only involved him performing vocals to pre-recorded tracks on his laptop. And his onstage persona, which had gradually evolved from an outspoken IDM hypeman to an eccentric indie MC to a screaming goth frontman, now found him hiding behind a console of keyboards and effects, barely singing, rapping, or even talking to the audience.

What struck me about that show was that one of the opening acts, Nice Nice, seemed like the exact inverse of that incarnation of Cex. Nice Nice, a duo of a drummer and guitarist, were overflowing with chops and chemistry, even while playing instrumental material that lacked any real personality or emotional resonance. Meanwhile, Kidwell and his drummer played loud, lumbering compositions that he had a clear emotional connection to, but were awkward and unpleasant to listen to. It would be months before Kidwell announced his intentions to record the next Cex album with Nice Nice as his backing band, but it was a combination that I had been hoping for since that night.

Cex’s albums always have an autobiographical bent, no matter how arch or abstract, and each of the eight songs on his sixth album, Actual Fucking, is named after a city with some kind of personal significance to Kidwell. “Baltimore” is his hometown, and “Los Angeles” and “Chicago” were places he lived briefly in the last few years. “Tucumcari” is the New Mexico town where his van broke down on tour, and the other cities represented in the album’s running order are presumably also places he passed through on tour. Still, none of the songs’ lyrics, the ones that have lyrics, anyway, are necessarily about those cities in any identifiable way. Instead, the drifting irreality of touring seems to be the main topic, or, as he says in “Covington”: “our ability to travel where we want.”

Aside from Craig Wedren of Shudder to Think’s vocals on several songs on Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed and Being Ridden, Cex’s past albums have been almost solely the work of Kidwell. But Actual Fucking is the first time he’s opened up the recording process to several collaborators. In addition to Nice Nice’s Jason Buehler and Mike Shirazi, Actual Fucking features Jason Caddell of the Dismemberment Plan, Cale Parks of Love of Everything, Tim Kinsella of Joan of Arc, and Roby Newton of Milemarker.

Kidwell married Newton in 2004, and since then they’ve become frequent collaborators, primarily with their new band, Sand Cats. But she’s also become a vocal presence on Cex releases, beginning with last year’s EP, Know Doubt. Newton’s indie mewl is sometimes used to good effect, but more often than not it feels a little out of place, as if Cat Power had suddenly wandered into Cex’s brooding techno. When Kidwell and Newton sing in unison, he in a low, seething tone, while she calmly ghosts his words in a higher register, they sound a little like X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka, particularly on “Covington.” Singing lead on “ “Chicago,” Kinsella sounds uncannily like Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock.

If all of the comparisons in the previous paragraph illustrate anything, it’s that Cex has finally made a straight-up indie rock album, something he’d seemed to be avoiding through all his years of recording IDM and hip-hop. Still, Kidwell has made statements to imply that Actual Fucking is his version of the dark art-pop of the late 70’s and early 80’s, naming touchstones like Peter Gabriel’s early solo albums and David Bowie and the Talking Heads’ respective Eno periods. The sound of the album bears those comparisons out too, bathing polyrhythmic percussion in ethereal synth washes while idiosyncratic vocals describe paranoia and alienation.

Sonically, Actual Fucking isn’t too far from the “IDM jam band” approach Kidwell described early in the recording process. Although most of the songs are loud, fully orchestrated ordeals, it’s at its most soothing and pleasant on two minimal instrumentals. On “Ybor City,” Kidwell plays a simple acoustic guitar composition, and the album concludes with the gentle synths of “Tucumcari.” More fully orchestrated songs like “Covington,” however, do little to flatter Kidwell’s nasal bleat or the shaggy song structures. Instead, it’s the instrumental work, particularly by drummers Shirazi and Parks, that makes Actual Fucking an enjoyable listen.

What’s most striking about the album is the realization that despite his reputation as a musical chameleon, all of Cex’s albums are pretty similar. The most significant difference between his different periods is his approach to vocals: none at all on Role Model and Oops, I Did It Again; rapping on Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed and Being Ridden; and croaked sing-speaking on Maryland Mansions and Actual Fucking. But a continuous thread of certain synth tones, rhythms, melodies, song structures and emotions runs through much of his work. Kidwell has long made a show of being able to do anything and go anywhere with his music, but truthfully he’ll never escape his own unique instincts and aesthetics. And there’s nothing wrong with that, even if it means his peculiar muse will probably never lead him to the populist epiphany he frequently seems to be searching for.



Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-07-03
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