Various Artists

Shadow Music of Thailand

(Sublime Frequencies; 2009)

By Peter Holslin | 11 September 2009

Sublime Frequencies releases aren’t particularly thorough or edifying—with their cut-and-paste cover designs and scattershot liner notes, often they’re as makeshift as the woefully ignored or long-forgotten strains of global music they present. Of course, this is partly what makes these releases so remarkable and alluring. The dogs that some men are, sometimes all a record might need is a picture of two pretty Thai women in tiny dresses on the cover—as is the case with the 2007 comp Thai Pop Spectacular—and it’s sold. Then again, there are also serious music geeks who would simply be wooed by an intriguing title like Shadow Music of Thailand.

This compilation, which was released as a limited edition LP last year, isn’t nearly as party hardy as the label’s other recent releases (Omar Souleyman’s Dabke 2020 and Group Doueh’s Treeg Salaam), but it’s just as distinct. The comp’s seventeen tracks, many of them clocking in at under three minutes, document a uniquely Thai style of garage rock from the ’60s known as “shadow music,” named after the UK’s sly instrumental band the Shadows. In a way, the “shadow music” here is comparable to popular songs by Ethiopian artists like Tilahun Gessesse, who incorporated the pentatonic scale and traditional melodies into Afro-funk. Only in this case, Thailand’s regal folk melodies are employed to make something slower and headier, more akin to surf-rock.

The musicianship feels amateurish throughout, and the comp features more than a few janky guitar solos, but there is a worldliness and flexibility to these songs that make some of them infectious. The Son of P.M., one of several bands put together by the prominent singer and composer Payong Mukda, makes a psychedelic Latin-style groove in “Plaeng Yiepoun,” its lithe organ melody leading Latin-inflected rhythm guitar and gleaming xylophone chords. In “Pone Tala Pone (Indian),” a reverb-drenched guitar phrase melds with vaguely Eastern drumming and melismatic vocals, making for something strange and heady. In “Lao Kratob Mai,” Johnny Guitar creates an indigenous feel with a meditatively plodding beat, an ornamental xylophone melody and warm organ fills, but the band mixes things up by tossing in a grizzled and psychedelic solo.

Sublime Frequencies got plenty of attention earlier this year when they hosted a UK and European tour that put Souleyman and Group Doueh in the same bill—making an irresistible and otherwise unlikely combination of gritty Syrian dabke and hypnotic guitar music from the Sahara Desert. But the label’s strongest point has always been its releases of splendid and obscure music from Southeast Asia. In that respect, Shadow Music of Thailand certainly gives the Khmer Rocks label’s Cambodian Rocks series a run for it’s money.