Despite Pol Pot’s mass murder of Cambodia’s Western-influenced population, the rock and pop scene of late ’60s Cambodia lives on amongst the stacks of tapes and CDs hawked on Phnom Phen street corners. Snapped up by American tourists like album compilers Paul Wheeler, and sampled on his 1996 Cambodian Rocks compilation, these mid-fi treasures sounded like The Ventures lost on Gilligan’s Island, and devotees of finer offbeat garage rock devoured them like so much banh chiao. In due time, bands like Dengue Fever produced their own version of Khmer-beat and the Cambodian rock revival launched into orbit, even though most garage rockers are hardly not in Khmer.
Meanwhile, back in Cambodia, Srey Thy, a war-child survivor, continued the tuneful tradition of her homeland tape traders, despite growing up in dreadful circumstances that involved kidnapping, slavery and, as the story goes, being forced to sleep in an abandoned army tank. Thy persevered, pulling through long enough to discover the karaoke bar where she’d serenade hard-partying (and paying) tourists. It was there that Tasmanian rocker Julien Poulson heard her voice and knew he needed to put a band behind her, and, thus the Cambodian Space Project was born.
In hindsight, Poulson’s notion of marrying simple garage-rock to the charismatic Thy’s haunted, resonant vocals, seems almost obvious – Thy’s melancholy birdsong of loss and yearning complimented by bashing drums and reverb-drenched power chords. The Space Project recorded albums and toured everywhere. Thy took to the band format like a duck to water and when they hit the road she entertained and inspired many, eventually utilising her new high profile to become a prominent human rights activist.
On their third longplayer, Whiskey Cambodia, the Space Project drive their rocket ship into the heartland of American ’60s pop: Detroit, Michigan. Employing first-rate Motown session players, the band evolves past surf and garage without dropping the party vibe. After opening with surf stomper ‘Dance Twist’ a rejigged CSP line-up shifts from ballads (‘If You Go, I Go Too’) and ’70s soul/funk (‘Black to Gold’) to dancehall pop (‘Mountain Dance’) and the Doors-like soundscape of the title track as deftly as one would move from the beach to the hot tub. While some of the grit has been cleaned out on this go round, the celebration and adventure remain. Much of the adventurous spirit is supplied courtesy of guitar wizard Dennis Coffey who himself brought Motown into the space age (and the ’70s) with his legendary guitar effects on Edwin Starr’s ‘War (What is it Good For?)’ and the Temptations’ ‘Ball of Confusion’.
Overall, this collection provides ample reasons to rip ‘Love Shack’ off the hi-fi and elevate the party headspace toward a more exotic chill factor. As with most of what you’d call ‘party rock’, it sounds better near a dance floor after a few Mai Tais and/ or Thai sticks, thus creating a personal space project in your own mind. For added authenticity you may want to dub the album onto cassette for a few generations and play it through a giant boom box which you’ve bungee corded to the back of a moped, before heading off to Bamboo Island to catch some waves.