Oakland-based weirdos Neung Phak play an homage to East Asian psych rock that is almost better than the real thing. A few of them run the hallowed Sublime Frequencies label, so you know these guys aren’t dicking around. It should come as no surprise that this witty, nostalgic-yet-original group includes none other than Peter Conheim of Negativland in its stellar lineup. These guys have listened to more obscure Cambodian garage-rock 45s than there are grains of rice in my rice cooker. (“Rice is great when you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.” –Mitch Hedberg) They sing in a variety of languages native to Indochina—Neung Phak’s dedication to authenticity is quite incredible, and I can’t imagine how much time it must have taken to learn those languages, not to mention the exotic scales, chord progressions, etc. True cultural immersion on this scale is rarely ever successful, but they’ve pulled it off, with room to spare for their own ideas.
These Californians are devoted to the music itself, subordinating their own personalities to it. There’s no ego exhibition here, as you might expect from well-traveled music connoisseurs—“oh, that’s cool, but I’ve heard much better bands in a Phuket dive bar…”—This record is an honest, passionate channeling of the band’s own creative powers, rather than a gringo caricature of some other culture, which would inevitably emphasize its foreign-ness by filtering the sound for Western consumption. Instead of compromises, there’s synthesis: Not enough spaghetti western kitsch? Add a trumpet! Needs more funk? Bring in a wah pedal! More surf? Turn up the reverb! And of course, the ubiquitous farfisa organ makes all the songs sound like something that could plausibly have been heard on Pnom Penh underground radio circa 1967.
There are, however, constant reminders that these are Americans making their own music, though perhaps aiming for the accolades of the various musicians from Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. that they’ve collected on several amazing compilations. (I won’t digress into more Sublime Frequencies worship, but it should suffice to say that “Princess Nicotine” and “Saigon Rock & Soul” are two records that every rock & roll fan should be required to hear.) “Fucking U.S.A.”—my personal favorite—is a jaunty punk-ish tune that mocks Western imperialism in a language few Westerners can understand. “Sa-Ha” is an oddball song that consists mostly of clever syncopation with interspersed noise freakouts, a deliberate mutation of Siamese rock motifs. On the other hand, you’ve got flawlessly un-Western-sounding gems like the instrumental “Khmer 28”; not to mention the album opener, an interpretation of the Indonesian classic “Kawp Koon Kawp Koon,” which features another world-psych stalwart, and the guy who released this record on his label, Alvarius B. of Sun City Girls.
It’s a damn fine record, folks. Will it take the place of any Sublime Frequencies compilation? Will it instantly absolve your record collection of any eurocentrism? Of course not—you owe it to yourself to go out and get those records too. What this record proves is that music is indeed a universal language, and there’s nothing stopping a few lively gringos from emulating an exotic style and making it their own. Hell, isn’t that how we ended up with rock & roll in the first place?