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"The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964-1975"

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.


Soundway Records Presents the Sound of Siam - Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964 - 1975 - Various Artists

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.




The Eye: Video of the Day

Sandro Perri

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Review of the Day

Minny Pops "Sparks in a Dark Room" & "Secret Stories"
The LTM label seems to have dedicated itself to reissuing work by Factory Records bands of the early 1980s who never quite became the next New Order, Joy Division, or Happy Mondays. So far, they have heroically compiled full CDs for bands who might only have had only one 7" on Factory, or whose work might have been overshadowed by the dominating mythos of that label or of producer Martin Hannett. Lately, LTM has exhumed a band who were one of Factory's strangest signings, a Dutch trio called Minny Pops. These two CDs comprise the group's second LP, 'Sparks in a Dark Room' (here coupled with contemporaneous 7" and demo material) and 'Secret Stories,' which is a collection of more 7" singles, demos, and excerpts from their third and fourth albums.

The question now is, since collectors have been clammoring for these records for so long, have they actually been worth the wait? I'd say so, but with some reservation. Minny Pops' yet-to-be-reissued debut album, "Drastic Measures, Drastic Movements" from 1979, was a bizarre mix of noise, new wave, synth pop, and Yello-like cabaret goofiness. It is one of the most genuinely tweaked documents of DIY electro-pop, a record which to this day causes heads to be scratched in satisfying bewilderment. As the group's members aquired careers as record label executives (at Boudisque, Play it Again Sam, etc), the music that they produced became more accessible, the noise nearly vanished, and recognizable industrial-funk genre trappings emerged. If you're aware of the music happening in Belgium in the early 1980s (particularly Siglo XX, the Neon Judgement, and A Blaze Colour) then the gloomy monotone grooves of 'Sparks in a Dark Room' will immediately sound familiar. But there's something different here; on 'Sparks,' there exists an implacable note of self-awareness and humor which seperates the album from those by other practitioners of the style. Tunes like "A Feeling" and "Night Visit" are perversely catchy, with lyrics that tend toward self-effacing. I like that. The humor, however subtle, offsets the otherwise overbearing gloom.

The "Secret Stories" compilation is problematic, though I am glad that it exists. In other words, if tracks from the band's 1985 reunion LP, '4th Floor,' and their 1983 soundtrack to 'Poste Restante' were not reissued in some form, there would always be someone crying "Why doesn't someone reissue those other two Minny Pops records I can't find?". The tracks from both of these albums, which make up the discs's second half, recall some of Tuxedomoon's post-Ralph schmaltz, with the humor replaced by opaque melodrama. My curiosity about these long out-of-print LPs is now satisfied, but I don't particularly want to hear the music again. Perhaps that's why the albums were not reissued in their entirety (a smart move on LTM's part). However, what's great about "Secret Stories" are the 7" tracks that make up the disc's first half, including the classic "Dolphin's Spurt" (a different version than the one on 'Drastic Measures'), and several wonderfully rough 1981 demos. These show the band at their best, a balance of bizarre electro-funk and edgy industrial disco. The comparison to early Yello isn't so far off (and, though I don't really want to validate the venomous English journalists of 1980 who sought to destroy Factory bands by comparing them all to Joy Division... well, with these 7"s, the comparison is tough not to notice), but Minny Pops were more subtle and much darker. With hindsight, it's easy to imagine which other bands might have listened to these records before starting bands of their own (especially the Neon Judgement), adding more bombast to the grooves. Listening to both CDs makes me yearn for the profound oddness that marked 'Drastic Measures, Drastic Movements,'which is simply not present here. 


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