Cex: Actual Fucking

[17 July 2006]

By Mike Schiller

“I was concerned about making some tracks about fucking that weren’t goofy pervo humor jams or intenso guilt freakouts. Actual Fucking isn’t some boneyard mixtape, it’s Henry James, baby.”
—Rjyan Kidwell

I’ll be honest: The art and title for Cex’s newest full-length album, Actual Fucking, scared the hell out of me.  The actual cover, the first thing anyone who decides to pick up the album will see, is basically a silhouetted porno money shot with a late ‘70s color scheme.  The liner notes are chock full of Penthouse Letters-style confessions of spontaneous sexual situations, and the disc itself even features crude drawings of naked and erect guys dancing (or maybe wrestling) with equally naked girls.  It’s not the artwork or the presentation itself that scared me, really—heck, some of the prose in those liners is hilarious as satire—it’s that I assumed the extreme and graphically sexual nature of that artwork was setting up listeners for an album full of electronic noodling as a backdrop for lots of moaning, groaning, creaky beds, and other various samples.  Electronic music has enough faux-erotic moaning and groaning already, and there’s no need for an album that wants to push it to an extreme to try and make a point.

Fortunately, Cex mastermind Rjyan Kidwell isn’t in the mood to make such a point.  Instead, what we get is an instrumentally solid album with lots of live instrumentation thanks to house band Nice Nice, some inventive programming, and dueling boy/girl vocals that actually don’t concentrate specifically on the sex; that is, for an album called Actual Fucking, there’s decidedly little of it.  My feeling is that the album is better for not being constrained to what would ultimately have been an 800-pound gorilla of a limitation.

The album seems to be arranged into two halves (sides, maybe), both of which contain three more traditional electronirock-style tracks (with vocals!) and one more ambient instrumental piece.  The first side seems to have more to do with, um, actual fucking, with tracks that sound rather sexual in nature, even if it’s not always reflected in the lyrics.  “Baltimore” is kind of like Trent Reznor fighting with Beck, with our industrial hero eventually coming out on top in a wash of glitchy, static-y noise, while “Denton” and “Chapel Hill” heavily feature vocals from Kidwell’s wife Roby Newton.  All three songs are mid-tempo and interesting, if nothing else, and “Baltimore” is a fantastic track for a mixtape, but Kidwell and Newton both have a bad habit of turning their vocals into nails-on-chalkboard annoyances.  This tendency most egregiously rears its head with Newton’s “You’ve got a bah-ah-ah-ah-dy” refrain in “Denton”, a raspy-voiced thing that’s raw and sexual at first, but quickly turns into the painful screech of a hungry alley cat as it’s repeated into oblivion. 

After the pleasant enough guitar-‘n-answering machine duet of “Ybor City”, we come to a few tracks that are far more listenable than anything heard thus far: “Covington” is a spacey, six-minutes-plus epic, climaxing in the center with an odd, if impassioned bit of stream-of-consciousness spoken word from Kidwell.  “And lettuce shouldn’t just lie on a sandwich / It mingles with the pieces of broken glass / Spread all over the hood of your car / And scattered on the dash,” and so on and so forth.  There’s some sort of driving/eating parallel that he keeps coming back to, but it’s just as nonsensical as it sounds.  “Chicago” and “Los Angeles” are piss-takes on melodic hip-hop and new wave, respectively, and they’re at least fun (in a black sort of way), if somewhat inconsequential—“Chicago” in particular has such a comical hook that you can’t help but sing along with after a listen or two.

And then there’s poor, peaceful “Tucumcari”, left to close out the album on a note of uncommon beauty, alone and underappreciated thanks to its more conventional, aggressive surroundings.

No, this isn’t really an album about fucking.  It’s not really a travelogue, either, despite Kidwell’s own admissions that it started out as such, an idea brought home by the locative song titles.  What Actual Fucking is really about is being an overhyped, underpaid glitchtronicist-cum-indie rocker, thinking indie-type thoughts and singing indie-type songs.  For an album that sounds as unique as this one, at its core, it’s really fairly ordinary.  It’s great for a night, but don’t be surprised if it sneaks out the back door before you wake up.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/cex-actual-fucking/