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.
However, as its subtitle — “Female beat, groove, funk in Germany 1968-1981” – implies, the second volume of Funky Frauleins casts a much wider net, both in terms of style and timeframe, than either its predecessor or other similar compilations dealing with the bygone pop sirens of, for instance, Japan and France. And the potential for disjunction that creates becomes apparent with the album’s very first transition, as we move from the brass-driven, late 60s bubblegum stomp of Ushci Moser’s “Sunny Honey” to the slinky disco groove of Veronika Fischer’s “He, Wir Fahr’n Mit Dem Zug”, which wears its 1977 vintage proudly on its sleeve. Clearly the unifying theme here is, above all else, that the performers are both female and German, which is probably enough for some. But, aside from the fact that the sense of disjointedness eases as the album progresses, for me it still lacked the pleasing overall cohesiveness of recent similar girl pop comps such as Nippon Girls and some of the better French Yeh-Yeh collections.
Another thing that, for me, establishes the listen-ability of these kind of collections is how well they balance kitsch with quality. Of course, what you might consider kitsch on an album like Funky Frauleins depends a lot on what cultural assumptions you bring to it. The stereotypical ideas of rigidity and authoritarian bent that the sound of German inflection might summon for many indeed provide a humorous contrast to the notions of looseness, flow and improvisation that terms like “funk” and “groove” conjure. And, if that’s your mindset, Funky Frauleins will certainly deliver on the yuks. Fasia’s strident vocal on track 3’s “Arbeitslosen – Blues” indeed seems to be trying to shout the groove into submission, while on track 11’s “Superstition”, the raw, bluesy vocal of Inga Rumpf is undermined somewhat by the fussiness with which the arrangement adheres to the Stevie Wonder original. Elsewhere, the stiff enunciation of Caterina Valente, on her English language cover of Peter Paul and Mary’s “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”, might cast some doubt upon just how sincerely she really is “diggin’” that “scene”.
But, elsewhere, Funky Frauleins delivers on the funk enough to pull it back from the brink of being a mere snark fest. Among such cuts are Anne Halgis’s “Fingernails”, whose propulsive energy and jazzy swing manage to outshine some pretty strange English lyrics, and perhaps the album’s highlight, “Can’t Understand”, a track by a pre-Giorgio Moroder Donna Summer — recording under her real name, Donna Gaines –- that’s marked by an insistent, pulsating rhythm and emotional, yet calmly authoritative vocal. Other hard driving highlights include Su Kramer’s deliciously wah-wah inflected “WieBer Sand” and Angelika Mann’s stark “Kutte”. And while these tracks may be overshadowed by the novelty of an entry like Lili Lindfors’ goofy, German language cover of “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, they are nonetheless those that provide the collection with its much needed heart and (especially) soul.
Aside from providing grist for adventurists in the pop music realm, Funky Frauleins also has something to offer fans of Euro cinema, as a number of its featured players led a double life in the world of film. Among these are the aforementioned Uschi Moser, a star of light sexploitation fare whose “Sunny Honey” initially appeared in her film Yearning For Love. College Girl Murders starlet Uschi Glas sings the lead on “Mein Wochenende”, a song composed and arranged by the great Peter Thomas, whose many scores include those to the Jerry Cotton Europsy films and the German sci-fi TV series Raumpatrouille Orion. Elsewhere, a sensuous, mildly disco-fied cover of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” is delivered by Hildegard Knef, a respected actress whose many credits include starring in The Murderers Are Among Us, the first production from East Germany’s DEFA Studios.
Overall, Funky Frauleins offered a diverting musical travelogue. But, while I suspect I’ll be consigning a good number of its standout tracks to my iPod, I doubt I’ll be giving the album as a whole a repeat listen anytime soon. Of course, this is probably a negligible distinction in this day and age, and — as much as my use of the term “day and age” — probably dates me considerably. Not all of us are as demanding of tight thematic cohesion when it comes to our albums, or of “albums” at all, come to think of it. More importantly, there are no doubt those among us who are perfectly happy just to hear a bunch of German ladies sing, and, for them, I can’t imagine Funky Frauleins being anything but deeply satisfying.
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.
According to the liner notes to this 2009 disc from Seattle’s Sublime Frequencies label, the main Shadow Music groups — such as the featured P.M. Pocket Music, Johnny Guitar and Jupiter — all had in common the involvement of one man, Thai singer and musical entrepreneur Payong Mukda. What’s interesting about all of them is that, rather than simply emulating The Shadows’ sound, they instead applied it to traditional Thai melodies, rhythms, and occasionally even instrumentation. The result is a unique mix that sees the exotic injected with the familiar, the familiar made less so, and the combined total somehow made more alien to outsider ears than the sum of its parts. Serpentine organ melodies intertwine with percussive guitar leads toward unexpected resolutions. Familiar elements pop up — a drum intro borrowed from the Surfari’s “Wipe Out”, the odd guitar figure reminiscent of early Ska — only to be swallowed back into the intoxicating swirl of influences both old and new, Eastern and Western.
Shadow Music of Thailand offers an invaluable document of a type of unselfconscious cultural fusion that seems increasingly rare in this era of global pop culture. Its an echo of a pre-internet, pre-satellite-TV age when what artifacts of Western pop culture did reach distant shores often did so in a fragmentary form divorced from context, thus providing the raw materials for endless and unpredictable forms of re-appropriation and reinvention. The CD is also an ideal form of musical transport, taking the listener to a far away place that, while in some ways geographically and historically specific, is also tantalizingly both here and there at once.
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.
Elsewhere, Cabinet‘s tunes veer toward the sort of jaunty, brass-heavy adventure themes that connoisseurs might associate with the work of Peter Thomas, and, with a track titled “The Fire-Dragon of Hong Kong”, even detour into orientalism. In other words, in a musical sense, the record is thematically all over the map, but all the same might serve as fitting accompaniment to the casual nudity and furtive, drug benumbed stabs at narrative coherence typical of those films that putatively inspired it.
However, where Cabinet‘s makers – session player and library music composer Heribert Thusek, working for hire with radio comedian Horst Ackerman under the name The Vampires of Dartmoore – really put an effort into driving their concept home is in their employment of sound effects and voice, um, artistry. This consists not only of library effects, but also seemingly everything the pair could find in the tool shed or pantry, all layered over the musical tracks alongside an assortment of eccentric vocalizations. This practice leads to creations like the album’s opening cut, “The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sex”, which, if I had to assign a narrative to it, I’d describe as the sound of a man having his legs sawed off in a strip club, and perhaps liking it.
Of course, the two eventually end up going a bit off topic in their use of sound effects, as well. I really couldn’t tell you what, for instance, is meant to be so scary about the sound of cellophane rustling, or the frequent appearance of something that sounds like an electric pencil sharpener – or, for that matter, why a song titled “Dance of the Vampires” would prominently feature a recurring “BOI-OI-OINNG!” sound. Fortunately, there are enough screams and sounds of people falling down stairs or being shot sprinkled throughout to reign us back into Haunted House territory, and by the time we get to the closing cut of the album proper, “Frankenstein Greets Alpha 7″, we’re also treated to the sound of an out-of-control Theremin accompanied by a heavily accented voice shouting “Frankenstein!” at us.
Dracula’s Music Cabinet makes for some pretty hilarious listening, though its reliance on audio gimmickry might somewhat limit its time on your iPod. Many of the underlying musical compositions are plenty enjoyable on their own, and, while it’s all the random moaning and shouting and pencil sharpening that gives the record its uniqueness, it takes a very specific sort to want to subject themselves to repeated listens. If that’s you, Finders Keepers has done a nice job of presenting this oddity, including a couple of bonus tracks from an unreleased project from the same crew called “Petting Party” (mainly more of the same, but with orgasmic moans replacing the screams) and liner notes that, though slight, are plenty informative when not drenched in hipsterisms to the point of being incomprehensible. Check it out.
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.
Now, I don’t mean by the above to suggest that Nippon Girls is a film-related collection in any express sense. It’s just that, for many of us, film was the only entre we might have had into the world it represents. Japanese movies of the era painted a tantalizing portrait of the country’s urban night life during the 60s and 70s, giving the impression that, if you were ringing in the wee hours in a crowded Tokyo nightclub circa 1966-70, there was absolutely no cooler place on earth that you could have been. Nippon Girls at once adds weight to that impression while fleshing out the picture, providing an appropriately party-starting overview of the very sounds that set the habitués of those night spots to shaking their well-coiffed tail feathers.
Focusing on the furiously contemporary, female-driven pop sounds that emerged alongside the Western influenced “Group Sound” boom of the era, Nippon Girls is refreshingly free of Enka‘s sentimental balladry, as well as the kitschy cover versions of English language hits that accounted for so much of Japanese rock n’ roll during the early part of the 60s — the only exception to the last being Nana Kinomi & Leo Beats’ “Suki Sa Suki Sa Suki Sa”, a cover of The Zombies’ “I Love You” that takes so many liberties with its source material that it’s almost not a cover at all. (And, of course, if it’s charmingly fractured English you’re looking for, there is that to be found, too, in particular in Keiko Mari’s “Tsukikage No Rendezvous”, which includes such giddy exclamations as “Now I don’t know too!”)
The collection also manages to encompass an impressively wide array of sounds, giving us an assortment of singers whose vocal stylings inhabit territories well outside those of the twee-voiced nymphets whom I think many people associate exclusively with the idea of Japanese girl pop. Of course, those “idol” types are represented as well, and memorably so; Miki Obata’s winningly goofy “Hatsu Koi No Letter”, in particular, stands out in this area, evidencing a sound and style that could easily have qualified her as Japan’s answer to France Gall. But alongside these more lightweight tracks there are also Jun Mayuzumi’s full-throated soul belter “Black Room”, fuzz psych numbers like Mie Nakao’s “Sharock No. 1″, the sophisticated Bossa Nova sounds of Ryoko Moriyama’s “Ame Agari No Samba”, and even outright trash rock in the form of the Margaret With Bunnys rave-up “Aeba Suki Suki”. What is perhaps most impressive is how the set manages to touch upon all of this stylistic diversity without once compromising its overall upbeat, club-friendly vibe, giving it a surprising consistency from start to finish.
Being somewhat obsessed with the Brill Building-informed idea of the the professional pop songwriter, I found Nippon Girls especially interesting for how, in its focus on original material, it puts a spotlight on the era’s top Japanese songsmiths. These were essentially the country’s Bacharachs, Webbs and Greenwhiches of the day, working both in similar styles and in response to an equally pressing and ever-evolving demand. They include figures such as Kyohei Tsutsumi, who worked as part of a team with lyricist Jun Hashimoto, and who, according to the liner notes by Cha Cha Charming magazine’s Sheila Burgel, is considered by many to be “Japan’s greatest pop writer and producer of all time”.
As a person with fairly limited previous exposure to 1960s Japanese pop, I can say with confidence that Nippon Girls offers a great introduction, though what interest it might hold for aficionados is harder to say. I was familiar with a few of its tracks due to them having previously appeared on the 2000 Goodnight Tokyo compilation (assembled by Pizzicato Five’s Yasuharu Konishi), though it would take a person with a more extensive collection than mine to determine how many others have appeared elsewhere. Whatever the case, I feel that such academic considerations are overridden by the fact that NIppon Girls is simply a great party album. As such, it is the ideal accompaniment, not only to whatever your Japanese movie fueled fantasies of what Showa era Tokyo nightlife might have been like, but also any number of real world social gatherings. In fact, it might be just the thing to have playing in the background should you and a few adventurous friends ever decide to sample any of those Japanese whiskeys you’ve been reading about on Teleport City.