As anyone who picked up Siamese Soul or Electric Cambodia last year will probably attest, there was some absolutely amazing music being made in Southeast Asia in the '60s and '70s, so I was pretty thrilled when I heard Soundway was throwing their hat in the Thai pop ring. As expected, The Sound of Siam is a pretty spectacular album, expertly balancing soulful, funky greatness with exuberant, kitschy fun and unearthing some incredibly obscure artists in the process.
The Sound of Siam is the first Soundway collection to involve curator Chris Menist, who has previously done some work for Soul Jazz and compiled a very interesting sounding collection of weird Pakistani film music for Finders Keepers. Menist is an English percussionist/music journalist currently living in Bangkok, which makes him one of few people uniquely suited for this endeavor. Nevertheless, assembling a compilation of decades-old Thai music would be a Herculean undertaking for anyone–even without a language barrier–and one that requires complete immersion, patience, and a hell of a lot of crate-digging. At the time of many of these recordings, recording studios, records, and record players were all quite uncommon in Thailand, so releases were often self-distributed and went largely to collectors and folks like party DJs until cassettes ultimately took hold. Things are further complicated by the fact that most releases were only 45s and that cover art could sometimes be quite misleading regarding an album's actual participants. Also, vintage music is not exactly revered or coveted in Thai culture. Fortunately, many of the old record shops from the period are still around and still have the same owners and the same dusty stock, so a suitably intrepid person can still find some gems with enough persistence (provided they don't have allergies).
The biggest revelation here is Chaweewan Dumnern, who contributes three songs, all of which are excellent. My favorite is "Lam Toey Chaweewan," in which she plays the role of a mistress telling her lover that she'll wait for him to leave his family. Of her three pieces, that one has the sultriest groove, but her vocals are thoroughly gripping and oozing with emotion at all times. Her inclusion is quite a coup for Miles Cleret and Menist, as I have not seen her work on any other compilations and I had an extremely hard time even finding any of her Thai releases (hint: her name also can be spelled "Chawiwan Damnern"). Another remarkable piece is The Petch Phin Thong Band’s instrumental "Soul Lam Plearn," which blasts into a completely raucous, utterly infectious, and triumphantly ridiculous rave-up after a deceptively noodling lute intro. I was also quite a fan of Onuma Singsiri's sassy vocals on the melodramatic "Mae Kha Som Tam," which uses a papaya-based salad as a metaphor for urban loneliness. However, there are quite a few other instantly likable songs here as well, those just happen to be the upper tier to my ears. There is very little weak material or filler.
Aside from the scattering of truly great songs and characteristically informative liner notes, The Sound of Siam is also pretty exceptional for its many bizarre and unintentionally comic touches. For example, the artists include both former rickshaw drivers and monks, "Ding Dong Ding" was originally on the soundtrack of an Italian "caveman sex comedy," and Plearn Promdan contributes a song about drunken monkeys and weed-smoking elephants. The music itself can be equally absurd, as Dao Bandon's "May Jom Ka Lon" kicks off with circus-style brass band music and many other songs feature incongruous ripped-off classic rock riffs (even the good ones). Fortunately, quality still reigns, so all of amusing background information, silly morality tales, and misguided musical flourishes only serve to imbue the album with an enormous amount of character and fun. This is my favorite compilation of the year.
- Chaweewan Dumnern, "Lam Toey Chaweewan"
- Dao Bandon, "Me Jom Ka Lon"
- The Petch Phin Thong Band, "Soul Lam Plearn"
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