Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Friday, December 8 2000, 5:01 PM
If you've wondered what to do while spending an evening alone with that ramped-up laptop, use those whizzy chips to whip together some sounds. If your fate is a cursor, make music with it.
That's a cynical way of looking at laptop rock, as a preoccupation of the computationally over-endowed who have nothing better to do while sitting in their favorite Starbuck's table, machine in hand. It is also a view that is unperceptive in the extreme.
The means of musical production and distribution have been in the midst of a radical technological shift for years, one that is more profound than in any of the other traditional arts. Laptops are not only an instrumental means of production. They are simultaneously a networked distribution system for the music, contact point with fellow musicians, e-mail booking agents, and the concert-makers. A typical laptop rock musician turns up at a club with a portable computer, a portable mixer, plugs into the house amplifiers, and is ready to go. A new organic relationship has emerged between musicians and production, one that enables artistic control over their own work. Artistic independence lives a double life as structure and superstructure, as economic possibility and ideological style.
It's a set of production relationships that privileges both indie cooperation and individual work. The title of Kid 606's recent extremely well received album, Down with the Scene, speaks to that emphatic individualism; his establishing the Tiger Beat 6 indie label speaks to the cooperative aspects. Tiger Beat 6 has become a home to laptop rock and its kin, popular with the Intelligent Dance Music crowd. This very small label is a cluster of electronic music allies: Kid 606 and Cex (Ryan Kidwell) tour together, having met through an Internet exchange of remix files.
It's also a very young crowd: Cex hasn't hit twenty. His self-produced first album, Cells, came out three years ago when he was sixteen. Together with Hrvatski, Kit Clayton, Lesser and several others, artists like these constitute the heart of a movement that emphasizes its existence as an indie alternative to now-mainstream electronica artists. As is the usual turn, this electronic indie movement is attracting major label attention itself and will face all those familiar art-and-independence versus recognition-and-money dilemmas.
Role Model is an uneven album. After listening to a bland opening number that vaguely reminded of airport music on bennies, I glanced at the title: "At Least I Can Say I Tried." Yes, that's true, but you couldn't say much more and be honest. Further listening became an exercise in keeping an open mind, and that gradually gave grudging reward. Cex left me interested in listening to his next album, but acutely aware that this effort needs ripening. The album's ideas raise it well above bedroom-quality DIY electronica, but ideas alone do not replace musical craft.
Part of the listening difficulty with this album lies in the spottiness of its compositional distinction and finesse --- or sometimes even noticeable attention. Electronic technique plays a far greater role than compositional depth or complexity, which explains why some pieces have the planed-down tonal quality of airport music, albeit at higher tempo. That pomo descriptive shallowness (which shows up in Cex's online fiction too) characterizes the composition, which serves more as a vehicle for effect than as an assembly of directed thoughts. Somebody has been listening to too many video game soundtracks here.
So a track like 'Again and Again' emerges as a fairly meaningless set of scratch effects minus the hip-hop acoustic to which it owes its compositional and stylistic existence. The following 'Love Cop' shows some rhythm flash, but loses it in a mish-mash.
The album begins to pick up with 'Wall Street Kid', which intertwines cash register samples with hurried, energetic electronic beats. 'A Mansion as the Body She Resides In' indulges in some Cool Interruptus while transiting through a variety of sound moods. In 'Am I Soundboy' the track can't decide whether it's the door chimes or a funky drum machine, and Cex once again gets bogged down in sound effects rather than working through a larger composition.
After a couple sober and melancholic pieces, 'Julia Walsh' and 'Ice', the 'Theme Song' breaks through with steady rhythm, a sense of emotional stability, and broad musical phrases with a percolating cheerfulness. Its quality of up-beat affirmation makes 'Theme Song' very appealing. Sometimes the search for effect leads to no more than search, as in 'The Angels Are There', which alternates between fast-beat and faraway New Age space music that bores.
There are no cultural crystal balls into which to gaze and say 'this is the future'. There were plenty of folks a generation ago who thought music's future was all Moog, and that has become no more than an antiquarian cult. Yet there is no gainsaying that indie electronic musicians like Cex and Kid 606 are moving fundamental changes to the fore.
Role Model is available from Tiger Beat 6