Sublime Frequencies' first new compilation after a long dormant spell is quite an ambitious one, as compiler Carl Hamm spent almost 8 years researching this project. That effort shows, as his liner notes could probably be stretched into a book with minimal effort. As for the music: anyone expecting the titular "psychedelic rock" or even anything particularly outré is likely to be disappointed by 85% of the material, but the Malaysian interpretation of '60s Western rock and pop is otherwise quite enjoyable and catchy (though not as endearingly wonky as some of the Thai pop that SF has previously unearthed).
As near as I can tell, this is the first ever major Western compilation of Malaysian rock, but Malaysia's story is quite similar to that of Thailand: Cliff Richard and the Shadows played a gig in Singapore and an entire generation immediately bought electric guitars and started playing every party and talent show they could possibly find. Of course, The Beatles also managed to insinuate their way into the national consciousness, as the short-lived Pop Yeh Yeh genre retroactively got its name from the chorus of "She Loves You." The phenomenon only lasted about five years, beginning when Malaysian musicians started to actually write songs in Malay rather than English and began dissipating around 1970 due to the influences of Bollywood, Indonesian music, and (later) disco. Pop Yeh Yeh was huge while it lasted though, as its major figures were fixtures in the nation's gossip and culture magazines, a fact that is extremely surreal given that most of them were still maintaining day jobs like normal, non-rocking people.
Most of the songs sound a lot like a surf-damaged early Beatles with female vocals: short, formulaic pop structures, strong melodies, and quite a bit of cool twanging guitar riffage. Most of the exceptions originate later in the '60s, as quite a few groups added an organ. While that may seem synonymous with '60s psychedelia, it is mostly just employed to play chord progressions or simple melodic lines (I guess no one could find Iron Butterfly records in Singapore, which is probably for the best: there is absolutely no excess or self-indulgence to be found on this collection at least). The few real nods to psychedelia come from A. Halim, Salim I, Nur Azila, and M. Said, all of whom seem to have invested in fuzz and wah-wah pedals. Of those artists, A. Halim & De'Fictions probably boast the most searing guitar solos, but it is M. Said & Le Ramaja who seem most categorically intent on kicking out the jams.
Most of the musical highlights, however, tend to be fairly straightforward pop with strong melodies and clean, surf-y lead guitar, like Roziah Lateef & The Jayhawkers' "Aku Kecewa." There are two particularly strong aberrations though: Siti Zaiton & The Twilites' "Rindu" features some fairly wild sax playing, while Zaliha Hamid and Orkes Zindegi's "Bertemasha (Party Time!)" completely steals the show with its exuberantly yodeled chorus (must have been quite a party). In general, however, there is not anything especially brilliant or revelatory here, just a solid batch of likable pop songs.
Hamm helpfully provides translations of the lyrics, which greatly enhanced my enjoyment of some songs. For example, M. Said's raucous barn-burner is about a "joyful party" and features lines like "It's a joyful party, a celebration! Greeted gloriously." and "Wow! Dance!" I was even more impressed by Nur Azila's foray into psychedelia, as it contains the profoundly un-psychedelic couplet "Take a look at your prospective son-in-law, I'm in love with a responsible man." Carl's liner notes, while quite scholarly, also contain some fascinating trivia. J. Sham of J. Sham and the Wanderers, for example, is a cat-breeding enthusiast and was once president of the Malaysian Cat Club! I was also amused to learn that Sham's contribution to the collection is written as a letter rather than a song, as he was learning about Surrealism in art class at the time.
Along with simply being the only real Malay rock compilation available outside of Malaysia, the greatest achievement of Pop Yeh Yeh is definitely Hamm's exhaustive, picture-heavy liner notes. While they can be somewhat dry or seemingly repetitive at times (many of the artists have very similar stories), they are as definitive and well-researched as anything put out by Soundways, Folkways, or Dust-to-Digital and provide as effective a crash-course in Malaysian rock and youth culture as could possibly be expected (especially coming from a non-Malaysian).
- Roziah Lateef and The Jayhawkers, "Aku Kechewa"
- Siti Zaiton and The Twilites, "Rindu"
- Zaleha Hamid and Orkes Zindegi, "Bertemasha"