Sunday, August 3, 2008

Cex - Retina

Cex - "Retina"

"Accessibility is like, really important to me," said R(j)yan Kidwell in a spoken interlude on his 2002 album Oops, I Did It Again. Kidwell's work as Cex had always stood with one foot planted in the impenetrably difficult world of IDM, but in both his live shows and the confessional, exuberant blog he kept regularly updated for several years on his website he made his desire to break out of the cult-like scene he was trapped in unquestionably clear. Being a solo laptop artist, albeit one of the first to give the genre a real personality, probably wasn't the best route to become the "#1 Entertainer" that he aspired to be. His metamorphosis into a brash but self-deprecating rapper would help him achieve this goal considerably, though the more accessible his work became, the more I lost interest in him as an artist.

Eventually expanding into an actual band with his wife and some other guy, the evolution of Cex from an ambitious and open-minded teenager into a career-minded and predictable young adult seemed complete. And yet... the most recent of his work that I've heard seems to have broken away from conventional pop structures and descended into a claustrophobic blend of mutant dub rhythms and looped samples that was probably never meant to play on, say, Jade Tree Records. Avoiding the indies altogether since his last album Sketchi, he's instead chosen to release much of his work over the past year on... limited-run cassettes from his own website.

The lo-fi, murky vibe of "Retina" feels familiar in the context of these releases, but surprisingly it first surfaced on a 1996 release, two years before Kidwell self-released Cells and four years before Role Model came out on Tigerbeat6. If this is all true, it means Kidwell was only 14 years old when he recorded it. I can't imagine trying to put together a track like this on a bedroom PC running Windows 95, or even a 4-track DAT recorder.

I love any song that incorporates ocean sounds, especially waves and seagulls like "Retina" does. Or maybe it's just be static and sampled baby Metroid squeaks. I can't tell for sure. The production on this isn't anything like the clean, crisp IDM that showed up on Role Model or Oops, I Did It Again, two of the best albums of their era even though they've fallen out of favor these days. A review in Pitchfork asks "Does anybody actually listen to old Cex records?" Okay then: hardly anyone. But does that say more about Cex or about the cynical attitudes of trendy electronic music listeners today? How long before bloghouse becomes the next electroclash?

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