Here’s a strange one. Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia is a collection of — believe it or not — 1960s rock and pop from the Southeast Asian country. Curated by members of the current-day Asian-American band Dengue Fever, Electric Cambodia serves up fourteen songs that are heavily influenced by western pop music. Yet the songs — all sung in the artists’ native languages — betray a strong local flavor.
The chirpy vocals of “Give Me One Kiss” by Dara Chom Chan are laid atop a straightforward garage combo arrangement. There’s a vague ska feel to the track.
Fully half of the album is given to tracks from Pan Ron. The production is weird and thin: while the instrumentation sounds like a Midwestern garage band recorded by Joe Meek, the vocals have an otherworldly overdubbed feel about them, almost as if they were added later. Distorted guitar solos and “ahh” vocals don’t betray much in the way of Cambodian flavor, but…those vocals! Nearly all of the singers on Electric Cambodia are female, and their helium girly-girl delivery is redolent of the sort of music played over the speakers on many episodes of M*A*S*H.
“Jombang Jet” has an exotic flavor halfway between Martin Denny and early Pink Floyd, due in no small part to the employment of a Farfisa combo organ. One can only surmise that the young males in 1960s Cambodia were otherwise engaged and thus unavailable for vocals.
Pan Ron’s “I Will Marry You” crosses the Electric Prunes with, well, Pan Ron and filters the whole thing through a cheap drive-in movie speaker. This one does raise the nagging question: was any modern-day post production and/or overdubbing performed upon these tracks? That cowbell sounds a bit 21st century…
The vocals of Ros Sereysothea are possessed of an even more Asian flavor. She gets five tracks on Electric Cambodia, and while they don’t betray a wide stylistic palette, they do represent a more effective synthesis of west and eastern musical influences. More pop than rock, and more east than west, Sereysothea’s numbers include accordion, sax and other non-rock-combo instrumentation.
Her “Shave Your Beard” is a highlight, though — as with all cuts on the disc — western listeners won’t have a clue what she’s singing about. The production is low-budget but clean and well thought out. A long guitar solo is a charming component of the song. Sereysothea’s “I Want to Shout” is the most melodically winning number. Tinnier than almost anything you’d hear on the Pebbles series, it’s nonetheless undeniably catchy. It’s a good bet that there’s a neo-garage band somewhere learning this song right now. The heartfelt yet sloppy guitar solo strikes the appropriate vibe.
Pan Ron’s “Jasmine Girl” combines French pop and “Girl From Ipanema” styles and weds them to a male-female duet. It’s the most “world music” track on the disc, but the warbling male vocals will seem — there’s no other word — weird to western listeners.
Overall, Electric Cambodia is recommended mostly to aficionados of the incredibly strange. It doesn’t have the immediate appeal of something like Next Stop…Soweto, and it’s not possessed of detailed annotation. Nonetheless, the curators are to be applauded for their efforts in rescuing this music from obscurity. Stranger than just about anything else you could name, Electric Cambodia is a worthwhile excursion for the adventurous. All others, you have been warned.
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