After his last encore, Rjyan Kidwell usually remembers to take care of introductions. His hair stringy with sweat, his bare chest shining, he gestures toward his band--singer Roby Newton, who's also his wife, and drummer Cale Parks. "Thanks," he says. "We're Cex."
It sounds like a joke--Cex is pronounced with a soft C, like sex--but what Kidwell really means is that he is sex. He views himself as a missionary, and his message is that shaking off the "squares" and their straitjacketed ideas about sex is a crucial part of becoming a supremely evolved person. When audiences applaud, then, they're essentially applauding two things: the songs and the promise of their own sexual liberation. If you're a straight white guy like Kidwell, you may see that promise as one he's perfectly capable of keeping. But I'm not, and I couldn't swallow his message if he dragged Christ Himself onstage for the encore.
Kidwell has been Cex since high school, when he spent his evenings dinking around on his parents' computer. One thing led to another, and his interest in ASCII art ("fantasy graffiti for super-introverted computer kids," as he describes it) turned into an obsession with freeware music applications. In 1998 he self-released Cells, a CD-R of mechanized music for laptops and their geeks. It impressed the equally green Miguel Depedro, aka Kid606, and together they founded Tigerbeat6, a label specializing in off-center versions of what's usually called Intelligent Dance Music--if the IDM world were a plain Oreo cookie, the Tigerbeat6 roster would be mint, mocha, and Double Stuf.
Kidwell spent much of the next several years on the road, touring with Tigerbeat6 labelmates and big-name headliners like Death Cab for Cutie and the Roots. He'd released five more full-lengths by 2004, when he moved to Chicago and met Newton, then a member of Milemarker, at a Valentine's Day party. One year and a matching set of tiger-stripe tattoos later, they were married. Since then they've relocated to Kidwell's hometown of Baltimore, started a band called Sand Cats, and collaborated on Cex's new Actual Fucking.
Actual Fucking is Kidwell's seventh full-length and his first since 2003's Maryland Mansions. Cex hasn't been one dude and a laptop for a while now--the new disc includes contributions from eight other musicians, including Newton, Cale Parks (who also drums in Aloha), and members of Joan of Arc and Make Believe.
The album's concept is simple, direct, and a little disappointing, especially from a newlywed: follow your boner and you will be free. In a press release Kidwell rather grandly calls the album "the beginning of a real stand the younger generations of this country need urgently to make against the repressive morality of the Baby Boomers." Strangely enough in light of rhetoric like this, the eight one-handed reads that Kidwell's friends wrote for the liner notes are all signed "name withheld."
Each of the album's eight tracks is named after an American city, but "Chicago" (with its deft guitar hook from Tim Kinsella) is the only song with lyrics that have anything to do with a geographic place. To one degree or another, the other seven all celebrate getting it on full throttle and discovering your True Self while you're at it. But does Kidwell really think he's found his True Self in his 20s? What's he going to do with the rest of his life?
Sometimes the music's solid enough that you can forgive the naive posturing. Highlights include the lullabyesque "Tucumcari," the rousing, tribal-cum-industrial "Baltimore," and the soaring "Covington," with its shaky synth, pell-mell drum solo, and lines about lettuce and sneeze guards. It's especially satisfying when Newton sings--her voice, somewhere between a yowl and a purr, is one of the best instruments on the album, even when Kidwell's lyrics don't do it justice ("You're the mirage / But you've got a body to touch").
Other times, though, a song feels more like a distracted quickie in the ladies' room, tampon dispenser squared to your lower back. "Ybor City" has a lovely guitar solo, but it's abandoned unreasonably and abruptly. (Ow!) And Kidwell includes some unnecessarily long answering-machine samples, which I guess is supposed to seem experimental but really only forces you to wait longer between the good parts.
When Cex played Seattle's Chop Suey in June, Newton and Kidwell spent most of the set bent over podiumlike laptop stands tall and narrow enough that they wouldn't have looked out of place propping up Bibles at the front of a church. They danced in place there, picking their knees up high and punching the air, and Newton ended up wrapping her mike cord around her neck. The gel lights turned both their shaggy heads an identical dirty blond.
After his laptop stand fell apart, Kidwell tossed it onto his back, where the pieces stuck out like wings. "I am your messiah," he stage-whispered to my front-row friend. "They should quarantine me."
Dude isn't kidding about the messiah thing either. Those shorts he wears at every concert? He found them at a Houston thrift store and liked the "St. John's" printed on the left leg--it reminded him of his childhood parish and of two literal saints, Christ's right-hand man and John Chrysostom, the "golden-mouthed" preacher of the early church. "I see myself as a sort of evangelist," he says.
In interview after interview as well as on his blog (blumpy.org/rjyan), Kidwell insists that the world needs Cex now, and that we won't be happy until we're freed from repression. "Repression" seems to be one of his favorite words--he uses it to shame everyone from boomers to mindless consumers.
When I ask if he's still a practicing Catholic, Kidwell says that he's returned to the faith after logging time in the respective churches of Cobain and Bowie. "Nirvana was like a religion to me," he says, "but I'm back to Catholicism. You just have to look at it with two eyes. It's great when a religion teaches that magic is real, but it's hard when they say that your penis is bad too."
I can't disagree, but unfortunately his analyses don't get much deeper than that--he's a lot better at pointing fingers than explaining himself. And there's a big difference between the humility of Chrysostom and the content of Actual Fucking's cover illustration--a masked man wearing nothing but Kidwell's tattoos stands behind a perky-assed pink lady, spraying come all over her back. It's hard to tell which is longer, his forearm or his dick. Elsewhere in the album art there are disembodied mouths and winking vulvae--if we're supposed to fuck to become whole, why the fixation on parts?
Worse, the liner-note stories are all dude-centric, and seven of the eight are geared to straight men--the only exception is about a 15-year-old boy who rejects Baudelaire for an anonymous blow job in a park bathroom. Say for the sake of argument that you're a 15-year-old boy questioning his sexuality--if somebody were to tell you to follow your boner wherever it may lead, wouldn't you be angry or afraid if he went on to suggest it'd inevitably take you to one of two places, a chick or a nameless guy in a men's room?
"But I am a straight white dude," says Kidwell. "I just talked to people that I knew, and for people to be angry about it is counterproductive. You have to speak up for yourself."
Point taken, and that's exactly what I'm doing. I don't have much use for a narrow and unsophisticated definition of sexuality--if I were to buy into it, I'd end up dissatisfied or guilty, whether I followed the rules or broke them. As much as I dig Cale Parks's drum solos, I won't be calling off my search for a savior just yet.