A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 30, 2006
If you’re a little sick of the music you’ve been listening to and are looking for sounds that are exotic and a little crazy but not precious and tame like the “world music” favored by your world-beat weenie friends, here’s my advice: look to the East.
I’ve been on one of my stranger musical kicks lately — wild Asian rock and pop. It probably started a few months ago when I downloaded from eMusic an album called Thai Beat a Go-Go Volume 1, a compilation of Vietnam War-era bar-band music — basically whore-house rock — from Thailand, where American GIs used to go for rest and relaxation. (There are two other volumes, one of which I just downloaded from eMusic.)
Here’s a look at some far-out sounds from the Far East I’ve been enjoying lately:
* Radio Phnom Penh recorded, assembled, and edited by Alan Bishop for Sublime Frequencies. This has to be one of the weirdest albums I’ve ever purchased. It’s a collection of music, commercials, newscasts, and other chatter (in at least three languages) from Cambodian radio, some of which goes back to the late ’60s. You hear the definite influence of Western pop and rock. In fact, in a couple of the tracks (most the “songs” here are stitched-together medleys) you can make out Cambodian versions of “A Hard Day’s Night” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” (which started out as a Peruvian folk song).
There’s a discernible wartime vibe in many of the selections, an urgency of a nation being torn apart. This is an album The Clash would have understood, a spiritual cousin of Sandinista! and even Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come.
“At its peak in the late ’60s/early ’70s, the Cambodians were a musical Superpower,” Bishop writes in the liner notes. But after the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, many musicians were executed. Most of the original tapes, smuggled out of the country, survived. And many of them, after the genocidal regime was driven from power, were remixed by radio programmers. FM stations play the remixed versions and new Cambodian pop, while the official state AM station plays the old stuff. This album is a mixture of AM and FM.
My only complaint is that none of the musicians or bands are named. (Same goes for the album reviewed next.) Most of us probably wouldn’t recognize any of the artists. Still, they deserve credit.
This smacks of musical imperialism. I guess that makes this a guilty pleasure. But it’s still a pleasure.
*Radio Pyongyang compiled by Christiaan Virant. This album, also from the Sublime Frequencies label, is subtitled “Commie Funk and Agit Pop From the Hermit Kingdom.” It’s even stranger than Radio Phnom Penh, though not nearly as enjoyable. If the other album is all urgency and upheaval, this is the sound of mind-numbing obedience.
Virant, who used to listen to official North Korean state shortwave broadcasts from his home in Hong Kong, describes this album best in his liner notes: “Schmaltzy synthpop, Revolutionary rock, Cheeky child rap, and a healthy dose of hagiography for Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il ... a heady mix of Stalin opera, Tokyo karaoke and brooding Impressionism...”
And some of it sounds like a bad Korean high school production of The King and I.
The track “New Model Army” (anyone remember the band by that name?) starts out with what sounds like a Korean ABBA. “Motherland Megamix” has brief passages that almost sound like Axis of Evil blues riffs, though they quickly dissolve into military music and disco anthems. And on a few tracks you hear what sounds like a polka-style accordion.
Then there’s the jolting “Start ’Em Young,” sung by a kiddy choir. To paraphrase a question posed by Sting in the ’80s: “Do the North Koreans love their children too?” I’ll bet they do, though that doesn’t mean I love hearing them sing.
*Escape From the Dragon House by Dengue Fever. This is one of the most amazing albums I’ve heard all year. It’s an Orange County, Calif., band fronted by Cambodian pop singer Ch'hom Nimol, who comes from a well-known Cambodian musical family. As the story goes, the band, led by brothers Zac and Ethan Holzman, discovered Nimol singing at a Long Beach joint called the Dragon House.
The boys play a tasty garage/psychedelic/surf rock, with Ethan standing out on Farfisa organ and Nimol enchanting in her native tongue.
* The Voice of Geisha Doll by Umekichi. This Japanese singer and samisen (a three-stringed Japanese lute) player plays traditional geisha music, but on the most interesting tracks here she mixes it up with Western pop, rock, and jazz. “Samisen Boogiewoogie,” grounded in ’50s malt-shop rock, sounds like the centerpiece of an imaginary David Lynch soundtrack.
*Dancing With Petty Booka. On this record, America’s favorite Japanese ukulele ladies, Petty Booka, branch out from their usual Hawaiian/country/bluegrass repertoire to play their version of mambo, samba, rumba, and cha cha. They also rock out with the “Desanoyo Twist” and go ska, Japanese style, on their cover of “My Boy Lollipop.”
Still, my favorite here is a country-sounding track called “Sho-Jo-Ji/The Hungry Raccoon,” featuring a dreamy steel guitar.
*The Rodeo Carburettor. This is nothing but good, loud, metallic punk rock by a leather-clad Japanese trio led by singer/guitarist Takeshi Kaji.
A few songs seem concerned with motorcycles. Reading the lyrics is a lot of fun. The song “Motor Head,” for instance, which I assume is a tribute to Lemmy and the boys from Motörhead, is nothing but Japanese characters in the midst of which is one English word, rockers.
For some reason, the company sent me a couple of extra copies of this CD. So I’ll send one to the first two readers who e-mail me at email@example.com. Include your mailing address, and put “RODEO CARB” in the subject line.
UPDATE: We have two winners! Congratulations Mark and Kristina.
Be sure to tune into Terrell's Soundworld on KSFR Sunday night. At about 11 p.m. I'll do a set of the above music and more Asian rock. That's 90.7 FM for Santa Fe area and http://www.KSFR.org on the web.