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V/A - Thai Pop Spectacular (1960’s – 1980’s) / Molam: Thai Country Groove Vol. 2

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Artist: V/A

Album: Thai Pop Spectacular (1960’s – 1980’s) / Molam: Thai Country Groove Vol. 2

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Nov. 9, 2007

The intrepid Sublime Frequencies crew returns with a pair of discs documenting Thai music. However, while the more general provenance of the albums is the same, the nature and focuses of the offerings differ starkly. Thai Pop (1960’s–1980’s), named in a typically uncomplicated Sublime Frequencies manner, documents just what its title implies: two decades of all manners of Thai pop, jammed onto a single disc. Molam: Thai Country Groove Vol. 2, as with Vol. 1, casts a more focused net, spotlighting the sound of the country’s northeastern Isan region in the 1970s. And while there’s some crossover in sound, most notably in the gritty fidelity and gaudy retro groove of the music, the albums illustrate well two very different points on the spectrum of compilation, and their success or failure of each rides as much on the curatorial assemblage of the artists and songs as the music itself.

Molam: Thai Country Groove Vol. 2 culls a second disc from two decades of progressive manifestations of traditional Molam music. Isan, a largely rural region that consists of nineteen provinces, possesses a culture that is distinctly at odds with much of the rest of Thailand; therefore, the music that has traditionally been born in Isan hasn’t always made headway into the country’s other regions.

The sounds exhibited on Molam aren’t those of an ignorant people. There’s a dose of rock ‘n’ roll in these tracks, which combine a reliance on traditional Molam melodies and forms with all manners of effects and modern augmentations. The results vary from tracks like Junpen’s relatively simple “Ha Fan (She’s Looking for a Boyfriend),” which ornaments the lead vocal with sparse instrumentation to Ka Kaw’s funky and bizarre “Nam Jai Fan (The Generosity of Our Fans),” which features prominently a fuzzed out guitar seemingly moving independent of the song’s primary arc. Pervading each track are Molam’s distinctive and prominent vocals, often in duet form, which, whether entwined in unison or engaged in a musical conversation, are a focal point of each song.

Unlike Molam, Thai Pop Spectacular isn't confined by geographic boundaries, and the three decades spanned by the compilation presents quite a wide net. The idea of such a disc seems a bit absurd – those albums that attempt to distill classic rock hits of the ’70s into a single 15-track disc take on an impossible task, and summarizing the whole of a country's pop output over 30 years would be even more inadvisable. Thai Pop Spectacular, though, likely wasn't made with any anthropological aims in mind, and probably was never meant to be any sort of cultural survey.

Still, a wave of kitschy frivolity underpins much of the album, and there's no denying that the album is a good time. A colorful mix of retro pop tunes with such goofball titles as "Gang Geng Nai Krai Lab (Look Whose Underwear is Showing)" and "Tangkon Tagnae (We Both Think We're the Best)," these tracks are bursting with bubblegum, albeit a treat of a decidedly exotic flavor.

Thai Pop Spectacular contains plenty of good tunes, but there are more than a few that seem included strictly for a healthy dose of bizarro novelty, like "Khor Tan Gor Mee Hua Jai (The Beggar Has a Heart)," an utterly strange ensemble re-working of "The Night Chicago Died," or "Pleng Show (Title Theme)," resplendent with all the funky, over-the-top instrumentation that often bogs down the decades-old American TV themes from the same era. Just as disco, as a genre, overflows with so much cheese that the genuinely worthwhile examples of the style are obscured to the casual observer, this disc's reliance on the conventions that, in American music, bring about dizzying visions of retro kitsch can make it a hard collection to engage sans the cultural artifacts of the Western music of the time. The language and vocal affectations are, of course, the main vehicles of this disc's foreign flair, and, in many instances, the songs' saving grace, adding not merely exotic spice to the music, but a dose of cognitive dissonance that can keep the album interesting as more than a novelty.

By Adam Strohm

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