Electric Cambodia may be one of the saddest and most enraging compilations released this year — not for the music, but for the history. The performers are dead, all dead, or “vanished” into the Killing Fields — murdered, presumably, although the how is a mystery. Did they die quickly or slowly? Did Sinn Sisamouth offer to sing for his murderers? No, that’s only a story, but it is the sort of story that is invented to fill gaps, and compel, as if by magic, incomprehensible events to make sense of themselves by tallying with the normality that came before. Sisamouth was a singer. How else would he crown his life? He sang. An anecdote is a taming spell. It makes the world behave.
And you listen and you think, this person is dead. And you think of the Khmer Rouge, and your thoughts narrow to a pinpoint of rage and wonder — how dare they? But history is full of vile daring. People dare, and have always dared, and will never stop daring until the earth brushes the sun and goes up — tzt — like a fly in a candle.
The songs Dengue Fever has picked for this compilation were recorded by artists who came to pop prominence in the years between the emergence of Cambodia from French domination in 1953 and the 1975 arrival of Pol Pot’s communists in Phnom Penh. Most of the tracks date from the 1960s, a few from the ’70s. They appear to have been touched up since then by anonymous Cambodian hands, but this seems to have been done to freshen the sound during its journey from one cassette to another, not to rewrite the songs, which remain intact.
Ros Sereysothea’s “Shave Your Beard” will be familiar to anyone who has doted on Dengue Fever’s first album, which features the group’s own cover version. Everything here could fit into the Dengue Fever oeuvre without a hitch. The rock music is joyously mid-century, spacey, forthright, psyche and surf, with buzzing farfisa organ, boogie-strut, snaky guitar, a male chorus crowing ahh-ahh-ahh in “Don’t Speak”, and pieces of British and US inspiration making themselves known all over the place. Long, winding passages are a constant motif, and this is where Western listeners will probably find the instrumentation most Asian — in these sinuous licks from organs and guitars.
The authority of the album lies in the voices of its women. Sisamouth contributes some male vocals, but it’s the particular pitch of a female singer like Sereysothea that makes this music singular. The tone is an angular super-soprano, supremely high, both sweet and sharp, as if a warm needle is telling you it loves you. It likes to find corners and hairpin bends and slip around them. There are moments of pleasurable vocal ornamentation: the drifting trill at the end of “I Will Starve Myself to Death” for one, or the slight gulping ache about 1:40 into “Cold Sky”. The personality of these effects changes with each song — slinkier here, more longing there. Electric Cambodia is not the first Western album to round up a collection of songs like this — that distinction might go to Parallel’s 1996 release Cambodia Rocks — but it’s a compact demonstration of the era’s charms, seen through a Dengue Fever lens.