When it comes to music, I have little nostalgia for vinyl. I much more prefer the internet equivalent of crate digging to the old school variety, where, along with the limits of physical space you had unlimited opportunities to inhale large quantities of dust. It has to be admitted, however, that those physical limits did provide an obsessive like myself with something of a shield against the wages of his own worst impulses. On the internet, you see, the rabbit holes are bottomless. Nevertheless, my endless plummeting down said holes still on occasion proves worthwhile, leading to a discovery that forces me to gawp in renewed awe at the digital world’s capacity to be an infinite Alexandria of obscurities.
When I first moved to New York some fifteen years ago, I spent a lot of time (and even more money) buying records at Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks and Other Music on East 4th. Among the things I stumbled across at those shops and got addicted to was music released by a label called Sublime Frequencies, which plumbed the most obscure corners of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa for classic and contemporary pop music. Being the fiend I am for old music from Asia, it was a foregone conclusion that collections of 50s-80s pop music from places like Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and so forth were going to delight me. But what was even more interesting than those were the collections of music from countries that have been traditionally off-limits to most Americans — Myanmar, Shan Province, North Korea — or are struggling to emerge from decades of oppression and violence, like Cambodia. So I thought, even though we want to take the full Sublime Frequencies tour, we’d start in those mysterious, forbidden corners of Asia.
France Gall might not have had the sophisticated mystique of Francoise Hardy, the it girl “oomph” of Sylvie Vartan, or the continental sensuality of Bardot, but she was nonetheless an integral part of the Yeh Yeh Girl pantheon. It could even be said that her young age — 15 at the time of signing her first recording contract — made her the most accurate reflection of that uniquely French musical movement’s teeny bopper audience. As such, she presented a guileless naiveté that perhaps made her an ideal blank slate upon which some of France’s best professional songwriters could project their pop fantasies — the most well known of those being Gall “family friend” Serge Gainsbourg. Because, really, who better to entrust your teenage daughter’s fortunes to than Serge Gainsbourg?
I suspect that the appeal of these female-centric compilations of vintage international pop is due no less to the power of the female voice to both soothe and inflame than it is to the longstanding function of the female form as an era defining marker of style. Perhaps few better illustrations of this can be found than the image that emblazons the cover of German label Grosse Freiheit’s Funky Frauleins series: that of a long haired, lithe, and blissed-out looking blond whose naked body has been turned into one big psychedelic canvas. It’s a single picture that evokes a very specific cultural moment as easily as any painstakingly assembled collage ever could, and has the added value of tantalizing us with promises of sex and countercultural transgression.
The title Shadow Music of Thailand evokes ideas of ancient and mysterious folk traditions. A CD with such a title, one might assume, could offer the listener a portal to arcane, culturally insular sounds that were never intended for Western ears. The truth, however, is a wee bit different. In 1960s Thailand, the term “Shadow Music” was used to refer to current groups whose sound was influenced by the British instrumental combo The Shadows. Originally formed as a backup band for singer Cliff Richards, The Shadows, while never making much of a dent in the U.S. charts, were an international sensation throughout much of the 60s, scoring hits at home and abroad with tunes like “Apache”. Their sound was similar to that of America’s Ventures, consisting of upbeat instrumentals centered around twangy, reverb-drenched guitar melodies.
Dracula’s Music Cabinet was part of a wave of horror-themed novelty albums released in Germany during the late 60s and early 70s, all of which were seemingly inspired by the very type of horror films that Europe was producing at the time, as best exemplified by the work of our own beloved Jess Franco. The liner notes to UK Label Finders Keepers’ recent CD reissue of the album refer to it as a soundtrack to a nonexistent film, which is pretty much right on the money. Like the soundtracks to many Euro-horror films from the 60s, much of the music on Music Cabinet consists of vaguely psychedelic lounge jazz that in itself doesn’t suggest any traditional kind of horror ambiance at all.
Needless to say, if you want to reenact the dance contest scene from >Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Nippon Girls: Japanese Pop, Beat & Bossa Nova 1966-70 is the ideal soundtrack. Or perhaps it’s the swinging, strobe-lit nightclub from your favorite Pinky Violence film you want to recreate — you know, the type where Miki Sugimoto or Reiko Oshida might go to settle scores with a sleazy Yakuza boss who’s crossed them? In that case, this swinging compilation from the UK’s ever-reliable Big Beat label has got you covered as well, as it includes among its many delights pysch funk tracks marked by stabbing brass and crisp, wakka-wakka guitars. All the better for going about your dirty work while a crowd of blissed-out hipsters dances obliviously beneath the swirling lights.