The Death of Cex?

CD_cex.jpgHe's not actually going to die

Sand Cats Cake Shop December 2, 2005

Someone sent me an e-mail a little while ago asking how much of a role my personal taste played in my criticism, and I sort of didn't understand. Is there any such thing as objective criticism? Is criticism anything other than (hopefully) rigorous and public examination and explanation of one person's taste? Can someone's criticism ever consist of anything other than the act of challenging and testing and stretching and displaying and fighting over her own taste? It's not science. Let's say, for instance, that Robert Christgau thinks that "My Humps" is the #10 song of the year, a sentiment not shared by all that many other critics. That doesn't mean that the Black Eyed Peas have ever pulled him out of a burning car (necessarily), but it does mean that there's something in the way Christgau listens to and interprets music in general and "My Humps" in particular that makes his opinion different from everyone else's. It's not that he gets something that I don't get (I don't think). It's that he looks at this stuff differently.

All this stuff has a lot to do with one Rjyan Kidwell, the musician who might still call himself Cex. Kidwell and I come from the same place (Baltimore and its burbs) and pretty much the same background (upper-middle class with Catholic and non-divorced parents). We're about the same age; he's two years younger than me. We didn't know each other in high school or anything, but we both knew a lot of the same people. I was intrigued when I first read about what he was doing here, and I was even more intrigued the more I looked into his work. Kidwell started making pretty, pastoral IDM records when he was in high school. His live shows were different, though: absurd party-rap chants over clunky, utilitarian beats. After a little while of that, he decided to take rap more seriously, working on his chops and putting out a somewhat convincing indie-rap album (I loved it at the time). Then, he gradually grew more and more goth, putting out an album of weirdly dark electronic emo before going into this full-blown Nine Inch Nails/Marilyn Manson phase. Somewhere during the rap-to-goth transition, he went on tour with the Dismemberment Plan and Death Cab for Cutie and then the Postal Service. He was getting a lot of press, and his NIN album dropped on Jade Tree, but I guess he wasn't feeling what he was doing, and so he started touring with a drummer and then a full band, making twisty depressive tribal drum-circle music. He also did some preliminary work on a band he'd formed with the Hold Steady's Craig Finn and former Dismemberment Plan members Jason Caddell and Eric Axelson. The band never went anywhere, which strikes me as a huge missed opportunity. Kidwell stopped touring and recording for a while and got married to Roby Newton, who used to be in Milemarker. Kidwell and Newton have a band together now, and it's called Sand Cats. When I wrote a story about Kidwell for the Baltimore City Paper last year, he said that he'd be retiring the Cex persona and concentrating full-time on Sand Cats. But last night, at Sand Cats' first New York show, Kidwell told me that he wasn't done with Cex, that he'd be putting out another Cex album in a couple of months and probably touring on it.

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All of this is to say that Kidwell has turned this thrashing around in search of a musical and artistic identity into something of an identity itself and that I've kept following along because his whole search has stayed resonant for me. This might be because I'm too close to Kidwell to evaluate his work with any sort of critical distance; I've known him for a few years, and I acted in the video for his song "Kill Me" more than a year before my whole White Stripes thing happened. And then there's our shared background; I loved hearing him rap about Baltimore stuff like Frisco Burrito and Thursday night dodgeball back when he was rapping. But another part of my fascination with the guy comes from this constant flux. The whole time Kidwell has been twisting and turning, he's been writing about it on his website, publicly struggling with what exactly he wanted to do and how he was going to do it, figuring out what he liked in music and art. This was before almost any music writers had blogs, and it turned out to be a pretty huge influence on this here blog; Kidwell was saying mainstream rap was relevant and great when that idea was considered heresy in indie-rock circles. He was doing the same thing at his live shows; the space in between songs where he'd go off on long spoken tangents were usually more interesting than the songs. It helped that he's a good writer and a better public speaker, funny and candid and loftily ambitious, accessible when he isn't being impenetrably pretentious. But even if he could barely string a sentence together, I'd like to think that one young dude's constant struggle to figure out how exactly he wanted to make a spectacle of himself and to cut through cultural noise would be fascinating stuff when he shows the world every single moment of that struggle.

At the last couple of Cex shows I saw, Kidwell didn't say hardly anything between songs. At Sand Cats' first show in Baltimore last summer, he and Newton did talk, but it was all part of this elaborate storyline about how they were warriors fighting to death by playing long, scraping noise pieces at each other. Around the time they got married, he stopped writing on his website and took all the archives down. A few months ago, though, I was happy to see that it had quietly gone back up, archives intact and new material suddenly appearing. Last night, I was even happier to see that he was in full ramble-mode again, going off on a long riff about how he wanted to find examples of people who made it OK to be lazy. It was a little weird to see him talking while Newton just stood off to the side, but I guess he just likes talking and she doesn't, so whatever. He told me after the show that he's trying to figure out a way to make his show all talking and no music.

The music itself was a lot better than the improv-noise stuff the two were doing at their first show, but it still didn't much grab me: vocal samples synced up to interweave all weirdly with each other, bits of acoustic guitars and tribal drums cued up via sampler, Newton singing in percussive grunts. It reminded me of the new Liars album: something I could admire but not latch on to much. But the new Cex album, which drops in April and which I'm hearing for the first time today, fulfills the promise of those last couple of Cex shows, all undulating evocative spins and twirls, acoustic guitars and burbling synth-bass washes and bubbling percussion and strangulated vocals. It's called Actual Fucking, and after a couple of listens, it sounds like the best music he's made. You might want to take my thoughts with a grain of salt, though; this is just my personal taste talking.

(The album's packaging also warrants serious discussion, but I'll wait until other people get a chance to see it. Boners figure heavily.)

Voice review: Simon Reynolds on Cex Voice review: Amy Phillips on Cex

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