"I don't know how it comes across when I say this, but I am deeply invested in sex and sexiness," Amanda Brown tells Simon Reynolds in the May issue of The Wire. Even though it is expressed in that peculiarly American way that makes Amanda sound like she regards the very fact of her being in the world as a business venture to be injected with regular shots of cultural capital, what she is actually talking about is her vision for the kind of artists and music now being issued by Not Not Fun, the label she runs with husband Britt out of their home in Eagle Rock, LA, and in particular its hot little sister imprint, 100% Silk.
As Simon points out, both Amanda's and Not Not Fun's roots lie deep in America's post-Riot Grrrl Noise/lo-fi DIY underground. This is a realm where sex exists purely as metaphor, something to be invoked or mobilised only in order to expose the brutality of power relations, or to subvert the oppression of normative social relations by flaunting its most taboo, transgressive manifestations. In contrast, almost all the music now being issued by NNF and 100% Silk reflects Amanda's lust for 70s and 90s dance music experiences, her desire to luxuriate in the sensual inclusiveness (or inclusive sensuality) of dub, disco and downtempo beatz, and the way these bass-centred musics work to eroticise the entire body (in contrast to the way Noise targets it as a conflict zone in a Total War, or the way Goth/Emo is convulsed by its base functions and desires, or the way alt.rock puts all the emphasis back on the same old erogenous zones as trad.rawk).
You can track NNFs aesthetic shift from pavement to Penthouse by comparing the messthetix that define the handmade packaging of the label's early cassette editions with the image on the generic sleeves of the 12"s released by 100% Silk, which looks like it has been lifted from a mid-80s Athena poster, all soft fleshy curves, hard angles and cool surfaces, a pre-Photoshop phantasy of aspirational erotica and glam aesthetix.
When it comes to her own LA Vampres project, Amanda's investment in sex and sexiness actually feels more cute than carnal, manifesting as a license to indulge in some slyly provocatve fun and games.
The 'two girls in the shower' sequence in the vid for the LA Vampires/Matrix Metals collaboration "How Would You Know?" might sound like a cynical media grabbing manoeuvre straight out of a Lady Gaga vid, but it feels more like an instance of adolescent juvenilia, a 'whatever' Chatroulette provocation, two twentysomething women getting back in touch with their insouciant teenage selves, deadpanning to the lens as they fake their way through a routine of getting ready for a big night out (and if you want to come over all Lacanian about it, flirting with the gaze they know is there, just out of sight, on the other side of the screen).
In the vid for "Make Me Over" Amanda regresses even further, into a pre-pubescent state of innocence eliding into self-consciousness (or self-awareness), rummaging in the dressing up box, pulling out a sequence of exotic costumes, posing, pouting and dancing in front of the camera, which in this case is a substitute for her pre-teen bedroom mirror, the first witness to vouchsafe an emerging sense of her own sexuality.
But judging from an interview recently posted on the 100% Silk blog, the NNF/100% Silk artist who Amanda seems to have most invested in when it comes to making flesh her new aesthetic is Maria Minerva, aka Estonian 'dream pop songstress'/'disco-not-disco diva' (and, it should be noted here, former intern at, and current contributor to, The Wire) Maria Juur.
During the interview Maria demurely deflects Amanda's line of questioning, insisting she feels more awkward and uptight than the potentially hot 'n' sexy "Eastern European supermodel goddess" (to quote an earlier 100% Silk blog post) that Amanda seems to want her to be. But a quick sweep through some of the evidence now archived out there on the www would seem to suggest that Maria's artistic project is about as deeply invested in playing around with notions of sex and sexiness as her label boss could wish for.
Originally taped at the back end of 2010, the vid for "Strange Things Happening In My Room", a track on Maria's recent NNF tape Tallinn At Dawn, feels like an ironic take on the Talk Talk idents that topped and tailed the ad breaks in the last series of The X Factor (which was still being broadcast at the time this vid was posted). Made to feel like the genuine article (groups of PJ-clad BFFs on a sleepover, having fun with the webcam, miming along to their current fave pop tunes), the idents were moments of pure media artifice, and Maria's vid feels like an ultra hip and knowing restaging, so a fabricated mass media event masquerading as a moment of tweenie jouissance becomes the site for an occluded adult drama, a solipsistic domestic episode veiled in mystery but heavily suggestive of auto-erotic experience.
The 'censored by YouTube' vid for the "So High" track by contrast makes everything explicit, appropriating scenes from what looks like a particularly sleazy slice of hi-brow Euro porn. Before YouTube censored it, this vid went most of the way.
Intriguingly, in the Info section of this post Maria quotes a couplet from Gang Of Four's "Natural's Not In It", "The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure?", sourced not from its original context, the 1979 Entertainment! LP, but from its inspired use on the soundtrack to Sophia Coppola's sumptuous 2006 soft porn period drama Marie Antionette.
"So High" is taken from Maria's forthcoming NNF LP Cabaret Cixous, whose title references the French feminist theorist/writer Hélène Cixous, the distaff Derrida, whose 1975 essay The Laugh Of The Medusa upped the ante on existing theories of non-normative sexuality such as polymorphous perversity and jouissance to instruct women thus: "Censor the body and you censor breath and speech... Your body must be heard." Which sounds like a permissive pre-echo of Maria writing (for France's Hartzine) about the effect on her teenage body of Roy Davis Jr's sublime 1997 Deep House track "Gabriel": "This track got me into House when I was 14. Made me go through changes in my body and I am not talking about puberty! "Gabriel" gave me an idea what a groove could do to you, and oh it felt good."
Appropriately enough, the 'teaser' vid for "Disko Bliss", which was posted in advance of the release of Maria's 100% Silk 12", feels like it arrives as a consequence of the effect of both Cixous's theories and Davis Jr's practice, foregrounding the kind of sensual total body experience brought on by dancing to disco and Deep House. Although Maria can't resist inserting a little ironic touch to undercut the erotic effect: keep watching and the beads of sweat glistening suggestively on the torsos of the male and female dancers are revealed to be fake.
As with most of the images of her circulating on the blogosphere, in the photo on the cover of Tallinn At Dawn Maria returns your fascinated gaze with deadpan inscrutability (is she projecting satisfaction or disdain or just indifference?).
The image's grainy soft focus monochrome makes it feel like a relic from the mid-70s. But is it a promo shot of a Laurel Canyon songstress, or a still from yet another slice of 'sophisticated' Euro porn? Or both? Maria as a double exposure of Laura Nyro and Sylvia Kristel?
In his piece in the May issue, Simon refers to Maria's 100% Silk 12" as "delightfully quirky electro-bop", which feels about right for what is essentially a collection of LCD dance moves (one of Maria's own tags for these tracks is 'slutwave'). But his description of Tallinn At Dawn as "marvelously woozy", while texturally correct, feels too reductive for what is an unusually captivating body of work, one that feels like the product of a genuinely original sensibility.
Some of the arrangements here have a real sense of mystery about them: the way all the parts are shadowed and multiplied by their echo chamber doppelgangers, and the way the individual synth lines, samples and rudimentary drum machine patterns interlock or overlap in unexpected ways gives the songs a complex and seductive polyrhythmic vibe. Rather than the vacuous synth pop of Nite Jewel (the comparison drawn by most Altered Zones type bloggers out there), what it makes me think of most is Nico's The Marble Index (a judgement which I admit may well be clouded by the fact that I know that one of the first songs Maria learned to karaoke along to as a Tallinn tweenie was Nico's "Janitor Of Lunacy": maybe that's what happens when you grow up with a dad who is the one of your country's leading music critics, something like the Eesti equivalent of Paul Morley). Anyway, I make the comparison not because of any 'ice queen' parallels, or because the songs describe a devastating/devastated emotional and psychological landscape (the lyrics are mostly indecipherable, Maria's state of mind and being veiled behind diaphanous layers of echo, although the overall mood feels rather lost and lonely, and therefore suffused with desire and a certain melancholy ache), but due to the sense of disconnect between the sighing vocal lines and what is happening elsewhere in the tracks. Legend has it that John Cale recorded his parts on Index blind ie without hearing Nico's vocal and harmonium parts first. Then the two were slammed together and somehow made to cohere in the mix. This had the effect of suspending Nico in a state of temporal-spatial displacement, and there's something of that same feeling in some of these tracks too (Maria is currently based in London so maybe it's all a metaphor for the migrant experience of longing and not quite belonging).
In a famous essay on The Marble Index Lester Bangs quoted an ex-girlfriend (Lester invoked his exes like muses) who told him it sounded like Cale had built a cathedral in sound for a woman in hell. On Tallinn At Dawn it sounds like Maria has built herself a boudoir in sound, but the emotional and psychological state of the singer remains elusive; is she in ecstasy or in limbo, enraptured or indifferent?
The difference between this music and the tracks on that 100% Silk 12" feels the same as the difference between erotica and porn. The seductive power of the songs on Tallinn At Dawn is in direct proportion to how little of herself and the process Maria reveals. By comparison, the sluttishly explicit dance tracks on that 100% Silk 12" leave little to the imagination and so fascination is quickly spent, turns morbid, shifts its gaze elsewhere.
A memo to Amanda Brown: in order to maximise the return on this particular investment, keep it under wraps.