The Many Faces Of Not Too Serious
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Musical polyglot Rjyan Kidwell created his alter ego, Cex, as a suburban Baltimore high school student in 1998, and his cheeky willingness to blend personal facts with outlandish fictions remains the lone constant throughout his stylistic shifts.
Over the years Kidwell has morphed from an IDM electronic laptop jockey to a gold-toothed MC to a decadent glam-Goth horror show, but his new album isn’t just his latest molting. The now 24-year-old Kidwell focuses his solo skills and entertaining brio into a band environment on “Actual F-ing” (Automation), the seventh Cex album proper.
Somewhere between groove-based krautrock and very early new wave, this latest incarnation of Cex proves that Kidwell’s genre-hopping wasn’t the impudent fashions of an ADD young man. Recorded with the indie prog noise duo Nice Nice (guitarist Jason Buehler and drummer Mark Shirazi), musical everyman Bobby Burg (Love of Everything), drummer Cale Parks (Aloha), and Roby Newton – the Milemarker keyboardist who is both Kidwell’s collaborator in the electronic duo Sand Cats and his wife – “Actual” welds Kidwell’s recent endeavors with actual instruments to his theatrical panache. The result is a matured songwriting, and it’s this recently hatched Cex band that Kidwell brings to Brooklyn’s Asterisk Art Gallery tonight.
The lead-off track, “Baltimore” – all songs on “Actual” are named after American cities that are familiar stops on indie-rock touring circuits – shakes to life with layers of percussive timbres; then, an intro of conga and bells becomes an oddly funky, cowbellpeppered polyrhythmic ribbon. Straight-ahead big rock beats make huge splashes at the start of “Covington” and then dissipate into bubbling electronic ripples. And “Chicago” threads together its jittery beat out of scant high-hat and snare punctuations laced with jerky guitar picking.
Into this genre-recombinant album Kidwell folds his own lyrical take on modern ennui. “When you’re still you’re so aware of all the distance that exists between you and the closest human to you” he sings in “Baltimore.” Elsewhere, he dissects boredom via third-person stories about himself in “Chicago: “You can see Rjyan here at this party, you can see Rjyan here drinking liquor, You can see Rjyan here dancing funny.”
Kidwell’s voice is an elastic instrument, lacking any regional accent or defining nuance. It’s not bad voice, nor bad enough to be unique. It’s the addition of Newton’s vocals, however, that really make “Actual” special. Newton is much more expressive at the microphone. She’s able to swing from an angelic Kim Dealish soprano to a Martina Topley-Bird throaty vibrato all in the wispy, dreamlike “Denton.” And when harmonizing with Kidwell she offsets his casual midrange with a female carnality, adding more sophisticated wrinkles to his melodies. It’s at these moments – in “Baltimore,” “Chapel Hill,” “Covington,” and “Los Angeles” – that “Actual” recalls its most identifiable precedent: “Fear of Music”-era Talking Heads.
Kidwell keeps the meta-fictional antics at a minimum here. The precocious prankster who mocked Britney Spears on his 2001 “Oops, I Did It Again” album and referred to himself as the “white Eminem” during his MC days limits his conceptual gamesmanship to this album’s packaging, giving it a cover image and title unfit for mainstream media or chain record stores and filling it with liner notes that read like Penthouse Forum letters written by young hipsters. But musically speaking, “Actual” betrays an artist discovering that one of the better jokes around is seriously not taking yourself too seriously while making some of the better grooves of your day.
Cex tonight at Asterisk Art Project (258 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn, 646-334-4019).