Thursday, May 3, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole with Thai Pop Spectacular

As a music fan, there's something special about discovering a new genre that you never knew about before, but instantly fall in love with. My own music tastes have been mainly relegated to foreign variations on typical American rock and pop sounds, with the biggest instance of this being the French ye-ye and pop scene in the 60s. My Mt Rushmore of this genre (Serge Gainsbourg, Michel Polnareff, Francoise Hardy, and Jacques Dutronc) are four of the best musicians I've heard in any genre, but when you get right down to it, their music, while brilliant, still works within the confines of Western rock and pop. At its essence, there's nothing much different from it aside from the language they're singing in. It makes sense that I would embrace it, as a fan of the 60s sound and the French language.

Once I got into French pop, I started seeking out other Foreign variants on rock and pop, but nothing ever took hold of me the way French pop did. I loved the Cambodian Rocks compilations, as well as the GS I Love You discs, but each new disc I found seemed to be following the same "garage rock but in X language" style. I never went down the rabbit hole with any of these genres, and my interest stopped with whatever disc I bought. The closest I ever got to looking for more was when I bought a Bollywood soundtrack comp, but I never really fell in love with that genre.

A few years ago my girlfriend and I went to a music store in LA (Amoeba, for those who live here), and I spotted a CD called Thai Pop Spectacular. I was intrigued by the cover featuring two Thai women in short blue skirts and a purple background, and in the lower lefthand corner it said "1960s-1980s." I flipped it over to see the track list/description, and instead was greeted by a smiling Thai woman holding some objected between her fingers. Hmmm. The CD gave me nothing to go by aside from the cover art and "1960s-1980s", but I figured that I'd say "fuck it" and gamble on it. It wouldn't be the first or last time I bought something that potentially sucked on a whim.

When we got home I popped it in and was greeted by the intro, "Welcome to Thailand," which is a somewhat obnoxious clip from a TV show where some very broken English is being spoken. Then, after those :46 seconds are over, track two and the album proper started...holy shit. The first song, Roob Lor Thom Pai kicks off with a slow, sexy beat and surf guitar riff. The singing, which may be off-putting to some, appealed to me in that this was clearly not mimicking Western singing. I remember thinking that, even if this was the only good track on the album, it was still worth the money I spent on it. The following song, Mae Kha Som Tum, solidified my love of this album and the genre. It's more Western, but fuck is it great. It has a great guitar hook and almost sounds like something you'd hear in a spy movie. And yes, this one also had a "sexy" beat to it. It's almost impossible to follow up the one-two punch of those opening tracks, but the next song, Lung Dee Kee Mao, was also really good, and had that unique beat that was starting to appeal to me, but almost straight-jacketed in a pop sound. The next song, Fawn Ngeo by Johnny Guitar, was a great instrumental that sounded both very familiar yet very foreign.

The fifth song, Kwuan Tai Duew Luk Puen, was a kick to the teeth and one of the best foreign pop songs I've ever heard, period. It's a fast-paced disco song and just stomps your ass all over the place. So far on this disc, I had heard three of the best songs I'd heard in years, and even though nothing else on the album came close to matching those three, it was more than enough to win me over.

The music seemed to get progressively "foreign," but still accessible. Songs like Tid Lom Ta Lai and Gao Guek were fun and enjoyable, and then you'd get hit with something like Sao Dok Kum Tai by Pumpuang Duanjan, which is a slow, beautiful ballad. There was so much variety in this album, with it seeming to hop genres and sounds at a whim, that it did something to me that hasn't happened since I first bought a France Gall made me passionate about the genre.

This is more of a biography than a review, but I recommend Thai Pop Spectacular to anyone with an interest in foreign music. It's more accessible than the Molam discs put out by the same label, but still sounds different enough from what you'll typically hear in a foreign pop compilation that anyone who wants to get their feet wet with Thai pop should start here. There's a sequel to this disc that's also really good, but this one still holds a special spot in my heart.

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