Low-flying Seattle ethnomusic label Sublime Frequencies has been in business for less than three years, but in that time established itself as easily the most happening label around in terms of hard-to-find music from overseas. In fact, it's created a niche that didn't even really exist before, steadily churning out kaleidoscopic and often in-your-face CDs and DVDs from places as far flung as Iraq, Java, North Korea, and Nepal, releases that are equally at home in the world music and experimental sections at a record store.
I don't love everything they've put out, but I have listened to every note of the more than 20 CDs released so far — I've missed a few DVDs, I admit — and a handful of them have become personal favorites. Another half dozen have landed in heavy rotation on the home stereo at various points. I've especially enjoyed the label's presentation of music from Southeast Asia, including two discs compiled by Bay Area musician Mark Gergis of Porest and Neung Phak — Molam: Thai Country Groove From Isan and Cambodian Cassette Archives: Khmer Folk and Pop Music Vol. 1 — and several more assembled by label head Alan Bishop of the Sun City Girls, including the frantic Radio Phnom Penh and last fall's unstoppable Guitars of the Golden Triangle: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar Vol. 2. The massive amount of material the pair cull from radio, vinyl, cassettes, and field recordings is beyond the reach of most file sharers because the majority would have no idea where to start downloading, and Gergis and Bishop put out their findings without much information or regard for sound quality or marketability. What I like about the music on these discs is the blend of familiarity and strangeness, of traditional and modern influences.
The latest batch from Sublime Frequencies unleashes music from Algeria and Northeast Cambodia, as well as a couple of new ones from Thailand: a two-CD set titled Radio Thailand: Transmissions from the Tropical Kingdom and a DVD, Phi Ta Khan: Ghosts of Isan. Radio Thailand was compiled by Gergis and Bishop, who each produced a disc, and like all the label's Radio titles, it is a fast-paced collage of music, advertisements, and news snippets spliced together from hours of radio broadcast recordings. Segues are abrupt at times, and the fidelity varies wildly. While the experience as a whole is like watching TV while someone else is wielding the remote, at least the content is more interesting than flipping between, say, VH1, Court TV, and lame reality shows.
Listening to Radio Thailand's second disc, I'm struck by the futility of trying to describe this music in any sort of useful detail. I don't know the artists' names, the song titles, or the years any of the music was released. I can't understand the lyrics and don't know the names of most of the genres or subgenres represented. Now and then a familiar snippet pops up, like the tune from Ennio Morricone's theme to For a Few Dollars More — only it's dressed up in low-budget ’80s synth tones and slapped on top of a disco beat with a guy singing a completely unrelated melody during the verses. There are syrupy ballads, droning a cappella chants, and lots of bouncy ’80s synth pop that sounds absolutely nothing like New Order. Now and then, a voice in English emerges from the wilderness, but it's inevitably a non sequitur: an announcement for a giant catfish fry, a report on the quality of Thai rubber, a woman announcing, "I have 20 minutes left with you guys, at least. Like, 22 minutes. No, 21 minutes and something." Unless you've been to Thailand and spent hours flipping through the radio dial — and I certainly haven't — then you probably haven't heard anything like this.
In contrast to the information onslaught of Radio Thailand, the recent DVD Phi Ta Khan: Ghosts of Isan is far more deliberate in its pacing.