Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The golden era of Cambodia

July 5, 2011
Source: Bangkok Post

Dengue Fever, Cambodian Space Project release new albums

Two bands playing music inspired by Cambodia's "golden era" of rock 'n' roll and pop music during the 1960s through to the mid-'70s, LA-based Dengue Fever and Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Space Project (CSP), recently released new albums.

Dengue Fever's Cannibal Courtship (Concord Music) is the band's fifth studio album and the first since the hugely successful Venus on Earth in 2008. Dengue Fever, led by the Holtzman brothers and fronted by Khmer singer Chhom Nimol, started by playing covers of songs by late stars like Sin Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron but over the past 10 years have slowly developed their own unique sound that takes Cambodian pop and blends its with edgy rock riffs, snatches of Ethiopian jazz and the sound of the Farafisa organ.

The band is very popular now on both the indie rock and World Music festival circuits, and the new album - on a new label and with a bigger budget - is likely to make them even more popular.

Cannibal Courtship is a mix of English- and Khmer-language songs, all of which were written by the band. The first thing I noticed about the album was the "wall of sound" the band has created. You can hear this on the title track, a surf guitar rocker about the travails of repressed love. The rock element is further explored on Family Business, Only A Friend and the hard driving final track, Durian Dowry.

While I like Nimol's singing throughout (for someone who couldn't speak English a few years ago, she now handles English lyrics with aplomb), it's the Khmer-language songs that I really liked, particularly the album's standout track, the dreamy, haunting Uku. But overall, this is Dengue Fever's most accessible album, full of interesting songs and musical detours. A band right on top of its game - highly recommended (http://www.denguefevermusic.com).

I reviewed the Cambodian Space Project's debut release, a vinyl maxi-single (the first vinyl released in Cambodia for more than 30 years) called I'm Unsatisfied, a Pan Ron classic, a few months back. Now, after a tour that took place in Australia, the US and Europe, the band, a fluctuating collective of up to 11 members, led by Aussie guitarist Julien Poulson and singer Srey Thy, has released its debut album titled 2011: A Space Odyssey, on the Hong Kong-based Metal Postcard record label.

In contrast to the established Dengue Fever, the CSP is just starting on its musical journey.

The songs on the band's debut go from Pan Ron and Ros Soreysothea covers like Love Like Honey to covers that take the song into uncharted waters like Love God and the anthemic and irrepressible Kangaroo Boy (a good one to pogo to). Singer Srey Thy is not such a smooth singer as Dengue Fever's Nimol, but her voice perfectly matches the more indie-rock approach the CSP has taken. And with the funny and moving Have Visa No Have Rice, she is also developing her skills as a songwriter.

The CSP covers perhaps the most famous '60s Cambodian pop song, Ros Sereysothea's I'm Sixteen, with a great deal of energy and some excellent blues harmonica playing from Ken White. Dengue Fever also covered this song some years back, but I like the CSP's version for its drive and edgy sound.

If they can keep going - it ain't easy being such a huge band in Phnom Penh - I think we can expect great things from the Cambodian Space Project in the future.

The CSP appears on a sampler compilation from the band's label, Metal Postcard Records, which is run by CEO Sean Hocking, who also operates a company producing podcasts for the Chinese market.

The Thai-based band Pussy & The Learjets is also on the record label (look for the band's download, Nothing/Itchy Skin).

The compilation's title is interesting - Dedicated to John Heartfield: Metal Postcard 2005-2010 - as it pays tribute to the pioneering German photomontage artist John Heartfield. It includes a track from the Cambodian Space Project's debut release, the maxi-single Knyom Mun Sok Jet Te (I'm Unsatisfied), as well as garage rock (DP from Hong Kong), minimalist rock from Perth-based rockers Erasers, electro from WOW, mutant disco from someone called "Dsico", and a strange cover of Woody Guthrie's classic US folk song, This Land Is Your Land. There is "attitude" on many of the songs, plus snatched media sound bites and a collage approach to creating music (perhaps this links with the photomontage of Heartfield) - but my favourite on this release is another band from Perth, singer songwriter Swoop Swoop, whose acoustic guitar-led songs Drive Into the Night and Your Blood Is My Blood are standouts.

The funniest title would have to go to the wonderfully named Bedford Avenue Mullet Girl; the song took me right back to the technopop of Human League from my hometown Sheffield. Check out http://www.metalpostcard.com.

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