When people talk about music with a “lost history”, they often refer to obscurities that were too ahead of their time to be accepted into mainstream culture or to be widely documented. However, the tragic tale of Cambodia’s musical past runs a lot deeper than that. During the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign in the 1970s, artists, intellectuals and musicians were ruthlessly executed, and their works destroyed, leading to a huge chunk of the country’s cultural history being wiped away. With various compilations and books bringing the music to people’s awareness in the last few years, The Cambodian Space Project celebrate and feed from the country’s lost musical history, bringing the sounds and spirit back to life in the 21st century. They were formed in 2009 when Tasmanian musician Julien Poulson heard the voice of Srey Thy singing in a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh. She’s lived in a tank, she’s been kidnapped, narrowly avoided a sex trafficking ring, been a women’s rights activist and has even worked as a Good Will Ambassador for UN Women’s UNiTE, rather an eventful life you’ll agree. On their third album, the duo augment their Khmer-rock and 60s Cambodian pop with a Motown flavour, supplied by an array of musicians including former Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey.
‘Dance Twist’ is a lively helping of surf rock that kicks off this pleasingly diverse album in upbeat, feet moving fashion, before the Motown connections shine through on the psychedelia-tinged soul of ‘If You Wish To Love Me’, while ‘Mountain Dance’ dips into a bit of rocksteady. Although it’s good having players who featured on some of the greatest soul classics, it doesn’t prevent the fact that they are essentially session musicians, something all too apparent on this album, which lacks a certain edge as a result. However, there are times when that barely matters, for example the highlight ‘Longing For The Light Rain’, a moody slice of laid back groove, embellished with colourful touches of brass, a fetching sax solo, some fine percussion sounds, and a sound in which the ghost of Curtis Mayfield can be heard.
The pace slows for the yearning power pop moment ‘If You Go I Go Too’, while the cool, memorably infectious ‘Here Comes The Rain’ would be a surefire hit single in a sane world, a commanding slice of savvy soul that provides another standout. Following the Eastern-flavoured (and English sung) disco-funk of ‘Black To Gold’, the 60s pop-flavoured ‘Rom Rom Rom’ races into heavier, more urgent moods towards the end, and the mysteriously quirky earworm ‘When Are You Free’, pushes things into new gears during two bursts of tempo that break up the Doors-esque verses. Reverberating with more unsettling vibes is the climactic title track where brooding drones meet the chimes of darkly atmospheric guitars, before the slow, spacious intensity transforms into West Coast soul towards the end, finishing the album on a high.
Although those famed session players add an authentic sheen to Whiskey Cambodia, in other places their presence makes things sound a bit more ordinary than they should be. A lot of people will consider Srey Thy’s vocals to be an acquired taste as well, but her often-haunted tones are perfectly matched to the well-executed melodies and effective arrangements. For something that’s a bit less Detroit and a bit more Cambodia, maybe the first two albums are worth seeking out instead, but Whiskey Cambodia does its own job well. 6/10
Review originally written for Monolith Cocktail