A wary Thai who listened to the opening minute of Thai Pop Spectacular might wonder if their country’s pop industry is being groomed to take the place of Bollywood in the Western world’s pantheon of unEnglish-language retro quirk. The album begins with mad-scientist laughter and voices gabbling in both English and Thai, then segues into a roaring yodel which sounds enough like a put-on to suggest that this is a comedy skit, but not enough to tell you what the joke might be, unless it is simply that the Thai audience is being given a chance to laugh at the sound of itself trying to speak a foreign language. Our imaginary person wonders what to make of it all. “Oh, sigh,” he thinks. “Those ferang. First they ignore us, now they’re giggling at us. Isn’t it strange? I would never have thought that these songs could represent us or me if I didn’t have this album in front of me, if I couldn’t imagine an outside eye looking at us through it and saying, ‘That’s Thai music. Those are Thai people.’”
“At least,” they go on, inwardly, “it’s a change from slabs of classical piphat. And” (the person is getting pragmatic and reasoning that if you can’t stop this sort of thing then at least you can find the good in it), “look at the way Bollywood has infiltrated them. They don’t just laugh at it any more. They take the composers seriously. They invite Asha Bhosle on tour. They sample the songs and use them as inspiration. It’s gone from wacky to something else. Wacky is a gateway drug to these people. Do not be ashamed of wacky. Maybe we—”
The person briefly wonders if Man City Lion will ever perform alongside the Kronos Quartet as Asha did and decides that hell will probably freeze over first.
“Anyway,” he thinks as the album progresses, “it’s not as if it’s all chortling and screaming laughter.” They’re right, it’s not. There’s enough wah-wah and goofing around to appeal to the buyer who looks at the front cover of the CD with its mod girls wearing dresses sewn out of teal lederhosen and thinks, “Oh, look, it’s something strange and weird and exotic and freaky, and I’ll buy it just for that,” (the title of one song is translated as “Look Whose Underwear is Showing” while another seems to be a comedy version of “The Night Chicago Died” sung by a group of men who shout over one another) but there are also giggle-free tracks, such as “Koh Phuket”, which boogies along under some genuinely tender singing. Throw in Kampee Sangthong’s “Mai Na Lork Gun” (romantic and lonely), Onuma Singsiri’s “Mae Kha Som Tum” (sharp and slinky), Chailai Chaiyata & Sawanee Patana’s “Kwuan Tai Diew Luk Puen” (smart and racy), Buppah Saichol’s “Roob Lor Thom Pai” (oh Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), and “Sao Dok Kum Tai” performed by the dead yet still beloved superstar Pumphuang Duangjan, and good times are ready to be had by all.
Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan Vol. 2 is likely to be more of a challenge for the ferang listener. (“Eh, Isan,” thinks our imaginary wary Thai, who lives in Bangkok. “Those people up north with the poverty and the accent.”) This is angular folk music, more Laotian than Thai. It jerks along in abrupt stops and starts, as if it expects a dancer to strike a stylised pose on each beat, hold it for a moment, then resume. There are cymbals, strident singers, and harsh, metallic, bashing clangs, but they come with enough guitars and rock riffs to make it all sound familiar, or, at least, to calm the frightened outsider and let them know that yes, this is popular music after all and if they only wait and listen a little then they’ll get it. “Lam Plern Chawiwan” tosses out a few bars of “Jumping Jack Flash” before Chawiwan Damnoen comes in to sing at us in a high-pitched twitter and rattle off a passionately complicated-sounding chunk of patter. Thongmark Leacha’s “Sorn Look Sao” eases us in with a low sleaze guitar before bouncing away into little clashes from the thick-lipped, teacup-shaped ching cymbals. Later in “Poo Ying Lai Jai” he sings handsomely over an organ.
The guitar, the folk-crashing, and the singing, all together at different pitches, give the album the crushed, claustrophobic feel of a night sky swollen with the awesome din of lighting. Residual crackle left over from the original records and tapes helps as well; any cracks in the noise are papered over with media jism.
It would be easy to call the morlam less foreigner-friendly than the pop if only the founders of Sublime Frequencies (Americans both) weren’t so openly enamoured of it. You might be able to file Thai Pop Spectacular away on the Wacky shelf and mention it in the same breath as The Kings and Queens of Bollywood but the thrilling stab of Thai Country Groove, once embraced, is less easily dismissed. (For the purposes of this sentence, and, in fact, all of this review, I’m assuming that you’re not from Southeast Asia. If you are, then feel free to ignore.)
Thai Pop Spectacular: 1960s - 1980s
Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan Vol. 2