Every day’s bus ride from the Westminster Park and Ride is like listening to the weirdest radio station imaginable — a lot weirder than even the heyday of “underground” radio of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
And every ride, I hear gems out of the 10,064 tracks on my 40GB 4G iPod that make me smile, or take me back, or get me to notice something new and cool that I didn’t know or notice before. That’s the beauty of shuffling through the music.
This morning I rocked out to the Reivers, a late-’80s, early ’90s Austin, TX, band that I loved, along with probably eight other rock critics and a few thousand Austinites. They started as Zeitgeist and had to change the name because some dorky classical group in Minnesota was already using the name. Shame.
I wrote about them a lot back in the day, and of course the support was for naught — they’ve long since broken up, and last I heard the drummer (as solid a timekeeper as anyone I’ve ever heard) was running a chain family restaurant somewhere in the middle of Texas and the band’s leader and songwriter was managing a book store. The original band’s music lives on, though. It’s nice to see on the Reivers Web site that most of the members are still playing music in various bands.
Also heard both Los Lobos’ version of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” and Freddy Fender’s fine 1970s country hit, the ballad “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” in which he sings a verse in lovely, lilting Spanish. They made me wonder how many hit songs in the rock era were sung in foreign languages and I could only think of a few: that singing nun’s French song, “Domenique”; Kyu Sakamoto’s early ’60s Japanese classic “Sukiyaki” (that’s a story in itself, a blogpost for some other time); the Spanish folksong “Guantanamera”; the Christmas standard “Feliz Navidad” and what else?
There are more songs in Spanish than any other language that crack the U.S. charts.
The iPod pulled up two sweet Kate & Anna McGarrigle songs, one from their folksy debut album, and one from the album I always liked better, their more pop-oriented “Dancer with Brusied Knees.” The sister duo of songwriters have always made spare, smart records that mix together elements of their French-Canadian roots and showcase their pure vocal harmonies.
Speaking of foreign languages, every time the iPod serves up anything from a series of CDs called “Cambodia Rocks,” I’m intrigued. They always sound like rough punk or pop songs — they have a sonic edge that makes them stand out.
Sometimes the jangling guitars are reminiscent of ’60s folk-rock hits, and sometimes, more dangerous like garage-band rock. There are elements of surf, ska, full-out rock and roll in the music, and at the start of every song I hear, I start going through my mental database, trying to remember who or what the hell this is.
When the singing begins, I remember, because of the language, and because the vocals are often very traditionally Asian — nasal and high-pitched and the melodies sound Asian, even if they’re sung over typical rock song chords.
This music is from a recently-released series of CDs that collect old, once-lost recordings that reflected young, vibrant music scene of Cambodia, put on tape and vinyl in the years just before the “Killing Fields” of Pol Pot probably wiped out every one of these talented musicians.
The songs were recorded while the Vietnam war was waning next door in Southeast Asia, and as soon as the U.S. abandoned the region in 1975, the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot’s regime took over and began their years of genocide.
But the music, as always, lives on. The songs from the collection serve as a sad but also inspiring bit of cultural archeology. Rock and roll was a universal language by the 1970s, and these kids spoke it just fine. The songs speak to us today, even though they incorporate the foreign language and bits of traditional styles and melodies.