musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for September, 2011

Kompong Pluk

One refreshing option for tourists that have developed severe cases of “Temple Fatigue” — brought on from trying to see and photograph too many Angkor temple ruins in the span of a day or two — is to take a boat ride on the nearby Tonle Sap Lake. For many years, Chong Kneas was the favored spot for lake tours, but that village started to get way too touristy, and as crowded as Angkor Wat on some days, so other parts of the lake have become alternate tour destinations. One of those places is Kompong Pluk, a picturesque cluster of small villages located on the floodplain of the Tonle Sap, about 16 kilometers south of Siem Reap. The homes in Kompong Pluk are built on stilts — some wooden and some concrete — and instead of motorcycles and trucks parked outside you’ll find boats and canoes. As you would expect from such a water-based community, most of the villagers’ income comes from fishing.

I visited Kompong Pluk again this month with my friends Rong, Chiet, and the four Try brothers. We bought packages of chicken and rice at the market in Roulous on the way and ate those for lunch later on the lake. Some of the boat ride is spent on canals and tributaries that wind through mangrove forests. Once you are on the big lake — and it is so big it would qualify as a “Great Lake” back in the US —the boat usually stops for a break and passengers are allowed to swim if they want. Our boat driver toldus that sometimes he gets younger foreign tourists who want to swim au natural. But this guy admitted that he got flustered when naked foreign women asked him to take their photo! Oh well, just part of a hard day’s work!

 

 

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Memories of R.E.M.

I first heard the news in an e-mail from a friend in Florida yesterday: after 31 years together, R.E.M. had broken up. Damn, that’s sad news, and it certainly signifies the end of an era, at least for people like me who followed the band throughout their entire career. R.E.M. was a great band, one of my favorites of all time, but if they felt they had nothing left in the tank after all these years, all you can say is; “Thanks for all the great music, guys!”

But 31 years? That’s mind boggling. All I can do is shake my head and wonder where all these years have gone. In my mind R.E.M. still represents the “new” breed of rock bands, not the rock dinosaurs from the 60s and 70s that I grew up with. I remember hearing a very catchy, propulsive guitar-driven song played at the 688 Club in Atlanta one night back in 1981. After hearing it for the second time that night, I asked the guy standing next to me: “Who is this?” The answer: “R.E.M.” The song in question was “Radio Free Europe,” a single the band had recently released on Johnny Hibbert’s locally produced Hib-Tone Records. I found a copy at Mark Methe’s Wuxtry Records in Decatur that weekend and played it to death when I got back to Orlando. “Radio Free Europe” was a fantastic song, and the flip side of the single, “Sitting Still,” was nearly as good. Like many music fans, my appetite now whet, I wanted to hear more.

That wish soon came true. In seemingly no time at all, R.E.M. was the hottest band in the region, thanks to touring, airplay, and word of mouth. Remember kids, this was well before the Internet. Tweeting was something only birds did. The band signed to IRS Records and released the enticing Chronic Town, an excellent 5-song EP in 1982. They followed that with their first album, the classic Murmur in 1983. I was such a fan of that album and so inspired by the spirit of the music that when I opened my own record store in Orlando in October 1983 I called it: Murmur Records. Another Athens band, Love Tractor (R.E.M.’s drummer Bill Berry had once been a member), performed a concert in our back room the following month. An Orlando band named themselves Stumble after one of the tracks on Chronic Town. Another local band took the name 7,000 Gifts, after yet another R.E.M. song. Like the band, we were on a roll. R.E.M. was our good luck charm.

Earlier that same year, just before they released Murmur, R.E.M. came to Orlando for a show at a local disco that held a weekly “New Wave” night called “Spit.” As expected, the band put on an electric show and took the time to talk to some of us fans afterwards. Guitarist Peter Buck was especially personable and full of tales. The next year, after Murmur had turned our heads around, I saw R.E.M. again in concert, this time at a free Spring Break show in Daytona Beach, opening for the English Beat. Thanks to the efforts of a mutual friend, I was able to coerce Michael Stipe, the band’s shy singer, into doing an interview at a bar after the show. I realized later that doing interviews wasn’t something that he was very comfortable doing, so I was grateful that he took the time to talk with me that day.

R.E.M. kept up their hot streak of consistently great albums the rest of the decade with Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Document. In the eyes of their fans, this was a band that could do no wrong. But then they switched labels in 1988, signing for big bucks with Warner Brothers and released the uneven Green album. It sold well, but many longtime fans like me were very disappointed. To the delight of many pessimists, however, the band bounced back with two of their most popular albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, punctuated by great songs such as “Drive”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming”, Losing My Religion”, “Near Wild Heaven” and “Shiny Happy People.” Their music took on a harder edge with the next album, 1994’s disappointing Monster. By that time, the band seemed to have lost the magical spark that had separated them from other bands of the era. Nevertheless, I kept buying each and every album when they were released. Every three or four years R.E.M. would record a new album; some good to great songs, some lackluster stuff, but just nothing nearly as amazing as those 80s albums. Their two most recent albums, Accelerate and this year’s Collapse Into Now, were especially strong collections, refreshing bursts of energy after a few too many lethargic albums the previous decade.

No matter which albums are your favorites by R.E.M. — and mine are still those early masterpieces on IRS — you can safely say that R.E.M. stuck true to their ideals (musically, socially, and politically) and always treated their fans like gold. To say that they will be missed is an understatement, but at least they went out on their own terms; no messy breakup with nasty accusations or bitter fighting, just a group of musicians who realized the time was right to call it a night.

In the last couple of years, the band has released 25th Anniversary editions of Murmur and Reckoning. Both are now available as 2-CD sets; the original album plus an extra CD with live concert material. In the case of Murmur, the album was completely remastered. Such sonic improvement is usually considered a good thing, but fans of the original “murky” sounding Murmur were more than a bit distressed to hear that their beloved album was being tinkered with. And so, I put off buying it for the longest time, until I finally took the plunge when I found a copy in the sale bin of a B2S branch in Bangkok earlier this year. I was relieved to find that the remastered version was not as dramatically different sounding as I had been led to believe. Then again, I’m no audiophile. If everything was still in mono I wouldn’t be distressed. The bottom line is the quality of the songs and the depth of the music, and that hasn’t changed a bit. It’s still a classic. As is Reckoning. That was an awesome one-two punch that the band never really topped, although they came close with Fables and Life’s Rich Pageant, both of which are also now available as deluxe 25th Anniversary editions. There have been a lot of articles in the media this past month about the anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind album and the impact that it had on so many music fans. But for me, Nirvana never really mattered that much, or at least they never had the impact on my life the way that R.E.M. did. That’s not to dismiss the influence that Nirvana and their album had on many people — every generation has its touchstones — but for me, R.E.M. was the band that truly changed things.

The Jayhawks and Rainy Day Music

With all the rain we’ve been getting in Bangkok lately, I decided it would be apt to put Rainy Day Music by the Jayhawks on my MP4 player. The Jayhawks have made plenty of wonderful albums over the years, but Rainy Day Music is perhaps my favorite of them all. Although earlier albums such as Tomorrow the Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall are considered by most critics — and more than a few fans — as the best ones the Jayhawks ever made, my personal favorites are the ones that the band made after Mark Olson left the band, such as Rainy Day Music, Smile, and Sound of Lies. Most diehard Jayhawks fans would scoff at such a musically sacrilegious statement, but while I like the early albums very much, I find that there’s just something more magical about the post-Olson albums with Gary Louris handling the lead vocals.

After Olson left the Jayhawks, the pressure was on Louris and the rest of the band to prove to skeptics that they could still make good music, and I think they more than delivered. Some listeners, especially the roots music purists, say the post-Olson albums are “too pop” or stray too far from the so-called “alt-country” of the early Jayhawks albums, but I think that’s elitist nitpicking. Any “change” in the band’s sound — and it’s really a subtle one — is simply the band adapting to Olson’s departure and also part of its inevitable metamorphosis. To my ears, it all sounds pretty damn wonderful. The Jayhawks always excelled at making melodic, country-tinged rock music that soothed the soul, and they only refined that ability with these albums.

And that takes us to the present. After a 16 year wait, the original band with Olson and Louris is back together again, and a new Jayhawks album, Mockingbird Time, was released earlier this month. I haven’t heard it yet, but you can rest assured I will be ordering it soon, since I doubt it’s something I’m going to find on local shelves. Surprisingly though, I found a copy of The Jayhawks very first album, often dubbed “The Bunkhouse Album,” at a branch of B2S here in Bangkok earlier this year. This is a wonderful album, positively oozing with country-rock flavorings, very reminiscent of the Flying Burrito Brothers, which of course was the band that the legendary Gram Parsons made some of his finest music with. Anyway, I’m sometimes pleasantly surprised with what I find on the shelves at B2S (although you have to have lots of patience and look everywhere; the way they organize their titles is horribly haphazard), particularly during the sales that they have two or three times each year. During these periodic sales, some very interesting catalog titles, and even a few recent releases (finally found the latest John Mellancamp, for example), make their Bangkok appearance for the first time. So, maybe there’s still a chance the new Jayhawks album will turn up here, but I don’t feel like waiting.

Cambodian Signs

Here are just a few weird and wonderful signs I saw while I was in Cambodia earlier this month. As usual, I saw the best stuff when I didn’t have my camera with me, but these signs were fun too.

 

 

Siem Reap

I spent four days in Siem Reap, Cambodia earlier this month. I ran the Lazy Mango Bookshop there from 2002-2004. Even though I’m based in Bangkok now, I to go back and visit friends in Siem Reap once or twice each year. I have fond memories of those days and the many wonderful Cambodians that I met. So Peng Thai and Chamrong both worked at my bookshop. Chiet and the Try brothers — Hoich, Hach, Channo, and Bo —- were all “street kids”, stopping by during the shop to chat (this did wonders for my Khmer language development), run errands for me, or help me dust the terminally dusty bookshelves (our front “gate” was always open — no AC, just ceiling fans — so the Siem Reap dust was a regular visitor). They were your typical irrepressible, happy-go-lucky kids, but not attending school at the time I met them. We soon fixed that problem.

 

It’s been satisfying to see them all “grow up” over the past decade. Rong is now a supervisor at the Siem Reap airport and belatedly taking a course to get his high school diploma. Thai is working as a licensed Angkor tour guide. He and his wife are expecting their second child early next year. Chiet didn’t get far in school but took a vocational training course and is now working as a welder. The oldest Try brother, Hoich, is now 22 and still hasn’t finished high school. He’s frustrated and wants to get a job and make some money. Thai is helping me find a vocational school or course where he can study motorcycle repair. Hach turns 20 soon and is happily going to high school and also studying English and various computer programs. I have a feeling that Channo will also go the way of Hoich and not finish school, but the youngest, Bo, who is 16, once again finished first in his class on the last round of exams. He tells me that he wants to be a doctor. Go for it kid! One notable absence from our old gang is Sophea, who used to run a shop in the town’s old market. She had the audacity to go and get married and then move to the USA about a year ago. The kids really miss her and are always asking me for updates on what she’s doing. One of these days we hope she’ll come back and visit us.

 

Siem Reap has changed dramatically since I lived there nearly a decade ago. It was never a particularly picturesque town, but it did have its pleasant side. Sadly, those last vestiges of charm are fading away with the increase in vehicle traffic and building construction. I’m not pleased with a lot of the growth I see. Along Highway 6, the road to the airport, there is such a glut of cookie-cutter hotels that many of them stand vacant or construction has halted. And yet, still more are being built. Must be high hopes for an increase of Chinese tour groups on the horizon.

 

I didn’t even go to Angkor this time. Other than taking a trip on the lake to Kampong Pluk (photos coming soon) I didn’t really go anywhere. Most of my time was spent meeting friends for meals, almost all of which were at the Hawaii Restaurant near Wat Bo Road. I’ve always liked the food there — from tasty pizzas and other western dishes to very good Khmer food — but for the Try brothers the real draw is their pool table. Game after game after game. And the family that runs the restaurant is always polite and friendly, offering typically charming Cambodian hospitality. Reason enough to go back!

Garland Jeffreys

Here is yet another important recording artist who, despite making consistently good to great albums since the early 1970s, is virtually unknown to the masses. Yes, Garland Jeffreys is another one of those artists who remain puzzlingly “under the radar”, even after many years of recording magnificent music and garnering favorable reviews from critics.

During his long career, Garland Jeffreys has followed an intriguing variety of musical paths, veering from rock to reggae and from to blues and soul, distinguished by penetrating lyrics and tunes that are buttered with a slight coating of pop. Jeffreys is of mixed racial heritage and his music is also a smorgasbord of styles. Garland Jeffreys has been called an old school rocker, a musical mongrel, and an urban poet; all of which are apt descriptions of this dedicated and important musician. Toss in elements of Lou Reed, Curtis Mayfield, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, and even a dash of Phil Ochs, and that will give you a general idea of what he sounds like. But then again, nobody really sounds like Garland Jeffreys.

Jeffreys first came to the music world’s attention in 1973 with the provocative single “Wild in the Streets.” The music was catchy but the lyrics were what really struck most listeners:

In the heat of the summer
Better call up the plumber
and turn on the street pump
to cool me off

With your newspaper writers
and your big crime fighters

You still need a drug store
to cure my cough

Running wild in the streets …

 

Oddly, that song was not included on Garland Jeffreys, his debut album for Atlantic that was released the same year. “Wild in the Streets” never made it onto a Garland Jeffreys album until a version appeared on his debut for A&M in 1977, the excellent Ghost Writer, still considered by many to be his seminal album. Jeffreys followed that with two more solid albums before signing with Epic and releasing another incredible collection, Escape Artist, in 1981. That album featured powerful songs such as “True Confessions,” “Mystery Kids,” “Modern Lovers,” and “Christine,” along with a spirited cover of “96 Tears.” It featured a stellar cast of supporting musicians, including Adrian Belew, David Johansen, Lou Reed, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Big Youth, Nona Hendryx, Roy Bittan, Michael and Randy Brecker, and G.E. Smith. The 2007 CD reissue also includes seven bonus tracks, some of which were first heard on the bonus 45 record that come with the LP version of the album. Another album for Epic and he jumped labels again, releasing a couple of more fine albums for RCA that never set the charts on fire.

Fans that have waited over a decade for new music from Garland Jeffreys were rewarded recently. The newest Garland Jeffreys, The King of In Between, was released just a few months ago on his own label, Luna Park Records. No more having to appease record company executives and marketing departments, this time he’s doing it all his way. Predictably, the results are most impressive. Tunes such as “I’m Alive,” “Coney Island Winter,” and “The Beautiful Truth” highlight Jeffreys’ talent for penning memorable songs, punctuated by socially conscious lyrics that are both eloquent and poetic. And his shimmering, captivating voice still sounds strong and assured at age 68. The only misstep, to my ears, is the mediocre “Rock and Roll Music.” But with an album this strong, I’ll forgive Garland for that one little blip. I’m just glad that this man is still making vital music.

http://garlandjeffreys.com/

Retail Brethren

I’m apparently one of the dying breed of people who still enjoy shopping for real CDs in real shops, as opposed to those folks who buy pirated copies on the street or download stuff for free on the Internet. Shopping malls, at least here in Thailand, are as popular as ever, but shops that sell music CDs are sadly becoming hard if not impossible to find. And of course we know the reason for this: many people are downloading music for free on file sharing websites nowadays. Can I call these people thieves? I think that’s accurate. If the music “file” is something that is not commercially available, or offered with the blessing of the artist, that’s one thing, but downloading copyright-protected recordings for free, whether it’s music or movies, is nothing but thievery.

 

Illegal downloading is one issue, but the increasing shift to online shopping by so many music fans puzzles me even more. Sure, I understand the convenience and “better selection” of online shopping, but I don’t understand why so many consumers have seemingly abandoned “brick & mortar” shops altogether. For me, browsing for music — or books — in a proper shop remains one of life’s great pleasures. Perusing the aisles and the tactile act of picking up the “product” and examining it; the colorful merchandising and displays; the unique smells; actually talking with clerks and getting personal recommendations; nothing about online shopping can duplicate these experiences.

Luckily there are still many shops in Kuala Lumpur that still sell real music CDs, and not the knockoff stuff. In Kuala Lumpur I shopped at Tower Records (yep, they still have a single store here, although I doubt it’s any longer affiliated with the bankrupt US chain) in the Lot 10 Shopping Center, Victoria Music in the Amcorp Mall, and several branches of Rock Corner. Almost every branch of Rock Corner that I visited yielded multiple musical jewels that I’ve never found in Bangkok, or ones that would be more expensive if I had purchased them online (factoring in shipping charges, not to mention those nasty customs and import taxes that the post office sometimes surprises me with). The best stocked branches of Rock Corner that I discovered (and I still haven’t visited them all) are at KLCC, the Mid-Valley Megamall, and Bangsar Village.

 

There is definite bond that is shared by people that work in any type of retail establishment, especially ones that sell music. Call it a brotherhood — or sisterhood, in some cases — of tunes, but a mutual feeling of camaraderie definitely exists. You’re not going to command a high salary working retail, so you have to love the product you’re selling, and also to be able to share your enthusiasm with like-minded customers. And retail music junkies are able to do just that, and do it gladly. Just ask the guy behind the counter, the one wearing a Ramones t-shirt, what he’s been listening to lately and get ready to be overwhelmed.

I’m not a chatty kind of guy; I don’t automatically walk into a shop and strike up a conversation, nor do I need to pester the staff for recommendations on what to buy. But when I’m browsing the bins in a CD shop I inevitably end up talking to one of the employees working there. I always have interesting conversations with the guy that manages the Mid-Valley Megamall branch (one of these days I’ll remember his name!). Like me, he’s an incorrigible music junky and happy to talk about what he’s been listening to or has on order. This guy’s tastes lean more towards hard rock and blues, but we still found common guitar ground to talk about, in this case Thin Lizzy and UFO. I know baffled him with some of the CDs I bought at his shop. Seeing the titles I had picked (Green on Red, Clive Gregson, Tony Joe White, Freddie Hubbard, Albert Collins, Gene Ammons, Jackie Leven, the Bongos, Ian Matthews, Quincy Jones, Brothers Johnson), he shook his head and said, “I think you must know a lot about music. The things you buy are …” he seemed to be searching for the right words, “… very different.” Well, I’ll take that as high praise!

 

At Tower in KL a young man named Billy was very helpful. Aside from talking about music and our retail roots (I mentioned that I used to work for Tower in Bangkok), I asked one day him how long it would take to walk to KLCC, and which route would be best. He not only gave me directions, but to make sure I didn’t get lost, he walked me out of the shopping center, across the street and through another shopping center, and up another street until he was able to point out KLCC (and the distinctive Petronas Towers that mark the spot) a few blocks ahead. That was service above and beyond the call of duty! The young woman who manages the Rock Corner branch in Bangsar Plaza was also very friendly, played very good music in-store (and played it at a normal volume: Billy at Tower is one of those dudes who likes things loud and louder) and even offered me a discount when she noticed that I was going to pay cash for a dozen CDs. But even narrowing my pile down to twelve was difficult in this case; the selection at her branch was so good that I passed on a few things I now kick myself for not getting, the latest Joan Armatrading album being one example. Oh well, there’s always next trip!

And amongst the retail brethren, I can’t forget bookshop employees, or booksellers, as they are often called. In KL I stopped by my favorite bookshops and purchased more than a handful of titles. Book Xcess, located in the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya, stocks an impressive selection of remainder books in a variety of categories. On my previous trip, I signed up for one of their membership cards, and when I returned this time, my discount card was ready for to use. In that same mall, on the floor below Book Xcess, there is a small shop selling secondhand books. Basically, it’s a disorderly mess, but if you patiently browse the shelves (and piles on the floor) you may find something of interest. Back in town, over on Jalan H.S. Lee, the Junk Bookshop, despite its name, has an impressive stock of titles. But once again, things are peculiarly organized and you have to look in every nook and cranny — and negotiate the scary upstairs “shifting floor” — to see what they have. Besides the haphazard way of organizing their books, the prices are a bit steep for secondhand titles, but usually if you buy more than a couple of books the owner will offer you a discount. I also did a sweep through the book offerings at the Red Crescent Society’s RC Shop. Slim pickings this time around, but I found a few goodies. While visiting the Rock Corner branch at the Ampang Point Shopping Center (the only branch where I wasn’t even tempted to make a purchase; their stock was a bit too generic), I was pleasantly surprised to find a special book sale taking place at the exhibit area on the ground floor. They had some interesting titles in both paperback and hardcover, and of course I had to buy a half-dozen of each. Too much is never enough!

 

 

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