A while back, I posted a short piece about a band whose work I thought was, I guess, more like pornography than a love scene, that is, more about using proven rock tropes and clichés rather than creating real emotion.
At the time, I was also making notes on what else “porn rock” might mean: The Plasmatics and Tubes maybe, Tatu, Devinyls and Missing Persons as well. Traci Lords, the notorious underage porn star from the 1980s, reached #2 on the Billboard dance charts in 1994 with her single “Control” and a lo-fi death metal band called “Traci Lords Loves Noise” dropped a series of thrashingly potty-mouthed records around the same time. Sawa, the lead singer for metal band Watch Me Burn, is also a part of Suicide Girls, a punkish nudie site, and Gaye Advert of the punk band Adverts posed for men’s magazines in the 1970s to make money for band gear. But none of that’s all that interesting. What I really wanted was America’s Hardcore Sweetheart, Sasha Grey.
The porn starlet has made some surprising moves into popular culture. Granted the mainstream and the porn stream are much closer than they used to be, but Grey has bridged the gap, starring in Steven Soderbergh’s film Girlfriend Experience (to mixed reviews) and taking a recurring role on the television show Entourage, among other clothed roles. Perhaps more surprisingly, she appeared on the October, 2010, cover of the naked-but-staid magazine Playboy. At the same time, however, she has also occupied another corner of fringe culture. She has just released her first book, Neu Sex, and she has sung with longstanding industrial outfit Current 93.
I’d seen repeated references to Grey’s “noise band” but hadn’t heard it and after some half-hearted attempts at finding a download I gave up. Truth is, most “noise” is pretty bad, and not in a good way. Like punk - or acting, for that matter - lot of people get away with it who probably shouldn’t. But when Pendu Sound Recordings released the LP A Cassette Tape Culture - Grey’s third as a member of aTelecine (after a previous LP and a 7") - I decided with some trepidation to request a review copy.
I was hesitant because I thought I was just going to make fun of the album while making use of the short list of other examples of porn rock leftover from the post I never wrote, a sequel to a piece I’d never finished to begin with. And that’s not a very good reason to write a review. But that plan was thwarted by actually listening to the record. To begin with, the “noise” moniker was probably applied by someone not familiar with arhythmic music and then repeated by scores of writers who spend their time seeing what’s already been written rather than writing something new. Go blogosphere!
A Cassette Tape Culture is hardly noise in the usual, brutal sense. It’s a far cry from Merzbow, the titan of the industry, and doesn’t bear much in common with the sultrier noise of fellow Japanese pioneer Masonna (or for that matter Hijokaidan, Jojo Hiroshige’s noise band which has used porn star Miki Sawaguchi as a vocalist). Rather, the sounds made by Grey (voice, synth, guitar), Pablo St. Francis (voice, bass, drums, dulcimer) and Anthony Djuan (voice, rhythm, words, synth) are moody and surprisingly ethereal.
All three employ tape loops as well, and there’s a decidedly analog sound to the resulting mix. Vocals and melodies drift in and out. Canned beats are folded in, but never push the music. There’s usually several things going on, creating a nicely disorienting feel, but it never overwhelms. The 12 tracks (clocking in at 36 minutes) overall are actually pleasingly light.
It’s hard to say if Grey qualifies as a crossover artist. Out of curiosity I watched some clips of her adult movies online and found them to be rather abusive and off-putting, the sort of thing that would suggest a more brutal music than aTelecine makes. Likewise, I’m not sure the Soderbergh demographic is overly inclined toward either hardcore pornography or abstract music. Grey isn’t crossing over so much as occupying multiple camps at once, which might be a more impressive feat. Grey has been making music since she was 15 and cites Throbbing Gristle and KFMDM as influences, and has made an interesting career for herself where, truly, anything seems to be permitted.