In dodgy times, Seattle’s Sublime Frequencies has emerged as one of the few non-dance take-interest-on-sight labels. Makes sense, as the no-frills archivist spirit upheld in importing the rich pop landscape of Southeast Asia through field recordings and radio sweeps isn’t exactly top priority, even in the “world music” market; it’s kooky WFMU material rather than the polished anthropology Nonesuch trades in. The recordings aren’t clean, the documentation is slim, but the heart beats strong. Radio Phnom Penh keeps alive what the dead can’t—preserving, via a series of cut-up broadcasts from the nation’s capital, songs of Cambodian musicians likely killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The collection’s scope is broader than the 10th-generation fun-house xeroxes of
Nuggets and “Mustang Sally” on Sublime Frequencies’
Cambodian Cassette Archives compilation; “Blondie in Khmer Camouflage” isn’t, so much as it is the Ronettes caught in the sea breeze of early reggae wafting through the modern conch of a telephone receiver. Elsewhere, a DJ chirps over a happy hardcore rendition of the finale from Swan Lake, and a female vocalist sounds like she’s falling down the stairs over a warped copy of Surrealistic Pillow before deciding her song would be better gone ska.
L.A.’s Dengue Fever, fronted by former Cambodian pop star Chhom Nimol, carry the torch of Cambodia’s kitsch garage. While the occasionally anemic straight-outta–Guitar Center palate might make you long for nu-garage’s faux-scrappy tin can production, at least the band remembers the exoticism redux of “Eight Miles High” and the confused ideal that journeying to the center of one’s mind is more or less the same thing as backpacking across Southeast Asia. They touch the nerves of a Cubano lounge band out for a morning’s surf with a mouthful of peyote in “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula,” but “Sui Bong” best reveals their mission. In the muck of swamp disco and television-studio rock flourishes, you fall in love with words you don’t understand, creaming to the enduringly mystical Farfisa and lilt of Nimol’s voice, which consistently marches the show two steps back to the cautionary tune of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” theory, but about eight steps ahead of Clear Channel.