[2 May 2004]
Whatever anyone might think about Rjyan Kidwell (aka Cex) and his tortuous path through music’s tangled sub-gardens, it’s quite clear that this passing-strange artist not only marches (and cavorts and stumbles) to the unique sound of his own drummer (in fact, as a laptop musician, he usually is his own drummer), but he doesn’t appear to actually care one iota for what others say or opine about his singular journey… at least, not in the conventional sense of “care”.
Artists who pander to their audience - by definition—give them what they want. Cex, on the other hand, has tossed out lovin’-spoonfuls of pastoral glitchtronica, hard disc-fuls of old skool hip-hop and gut-fuls of emo-folk along the haphazard route his muse has led him, audience be damned (although live, in the flesh, they’ve always been pretty much guaranteed a free-stylin’ semi-naked frenzy of a show). He’s shown about as much respect for genre boundaries as your average mercenary shows national ones. Which might well leave your typical (IDM, or hip-hop, or indie rock) fan nonplussed, but that’s probably not a problem for an artist who seems intent on breaking down the artist/audience barrier anyway.
And now, along with all those other styles, Cex has dragged the barely reanimated corpse of late ‘80s/early ‘90s industrial goth metal into the mix (Ministry, NIN), along with an unforgivably groansome titular pun, based on both his Baltimore home and on the notoriously spooky kid the latter act, in particular, partially spawned. Oh, and all this on a label whose image is synonymous with emo-slash-punk.
Given all that, it’s probably no surprise that Maryland Mansions is a very strange beast indeed. First, it’s only a tad over 25 minutes in length, and despite it featuring eight songs all hovering around the 3-minute mark, some have classified it as an EP. But I think they’re wrong, that this is indeed a full-length, which means alongside Being Ridden, Kidwell released two albums in ‘03. Two very different albums. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385336535/qid=1080962265/sr=2-1/ref=sr_2_1/102-1429553-1066519
Supporting evidence is not long in coming. “Drive off a Mountain” opens with some ethereal phantom sounds drifting above initially subdued and increasingly staticky distortion, while Kidwell’s thin vocals begin to ratchet up the dread into fully-fledged Antichrist Superstar hysteria, balancing self-negating nihilism with existential doubt borne of geographical distance. With creepily portentous lines like “When you pick up the phone, I’m not there… When you need me the most, I’m not there”, it comes across as something a little more complex than straight parody. Nobody likes to be fooled, but if there’s a tongue in anyone’s cheek here, it’s only worrying loose teeth, I swear.
Not that the record is devoid of humour. Witness these lines from “Stop Eating”, a Beck-like white-boy rap that seems to revel in boilerplate gutter misanthropy: “Food is disgusting/ It’s what they make shit from/ You’re vomiting backwards”. Gross as the images are, you can almost sense the sly grin from here. As if Cex is trying to cover all bases at once; both mourning aspects of our current dehumanizing dystopia—from eating disorders to slavish adherence to nutritional and dietary and therefore lifestyle fads - while feigning indifference through exaggeration and mockery, real pain vying with an insulating faux nonchalance.
Surprising elements occur: rivulets of acoustic guitar occasionally hiding behind, and sometimes riding atop, the glitchy distorted beats and chorus lines. “Take Pills” is damn near a folk song in some ways, despite the interjection of various examples of sonic trickery, the clank and hiss of haunted warehouses. Also, tunes. Again, buried beneath various layers of sound, whether rhythmic or textural, tiny hooks gleam waiting to snag the unwary, little melodic barbs.
For me, this small record (camouflaging such larger depths) reaches its apotheosis with “My Head”, another transgressive hip-hop digression as far as rhythm and beats are concerned. It’s as if Trent Reznor dropped some angsty lyrics over a fairly standard backbeat suitably redolent of urban restlessness… and then proceeded to rap, with that teeter-totter singsong flow so many Caucasians (from Deborah Harry historically through the Beckster to someone like Buck 65 now) seem to favour. It really shouldn’t work, yet here it does. Coming right after the ill advised entreaties-for-oblivion of the opening quartet, this abrupt switch to sickly introspection prickles the back of your neck like something toxic that went and leaked everywhere. Spiky guitar lines crawl like mutant roaches all over this song, all the while stalked by the implacable beat. The subdued flow of the rapped verses (“Where’s the embarrassment? / Where’s the banality? / I wanna hold the moments that you flush from your memory / One day I’ll make songs / Songs will make it permanent / In 4 minute forms the whole world might learn from this”) merges into a (barely) sung chorus (“My head is spinning / But very, very slowly / And I hope one day my singing / Might contain or control it”), and the overall effect is cinematic, gripping, authentic.
Really, a hell of a lot is going on all over this dense record - gleeful nihilism, genuine bewilderment, even courage. “Stillnaut Rjyan” alone runs the gamut of Bowie references, spiny hilarity and bizarre free flow word association, while “The Strong Suit” serves up film noir tenor sax samples with a dose of biting humour and knowing self-deprecation (“I shouldn’t be here / But since I am / Can I interest you in a little snake oil?”) over the faintest of dub bases.
Interestingly, the last words we hear on Maryland Mansions are “Won’t break down”. Hmmm. You know, on second thoughts, scratch what I wrote earlier. Perhaps Rjyan Kidwell cares very deeply after all.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/cex-maryland2/