Thanks to a pair of Bangkok-based record collectors, an awful lot of curious listeners in the west have been introduced to the distinct pleasures of Thai popular music in recent years. Chris Menist and Maft Sai have compiled and produced a series of excellent collections for Soundway, Finders Keepers, Dust-to-Digital, and Zudrangma Records examining luk thung and molam music from the 60s-80s, and judging from another recent collection they put together for the Japanese imprint Em Records there seems to be plenty more to come. Isan Lam Plearn is both a particular mode or style of molam music and the title track of the fantastic anthology of music by singer Angkanang Kunchai, made with the mostly female group Ubon-Pattana Band and cut in the early 70s.
According to the the liner notes by Menist and Sai, Kunchai’s work with producer Surin Paksiri was paradigm-shifting, with arrangements that moved freely between the more countrified-sound of molam and the sophisticated urbanity of luk thung. Traditional Thai instruments liked the bamboo mouth organ called the khaen and the three-stringed lute known as the phin are key foundational components of the arrangements, and many of the grooves conform to the specific rhythms prescribed by specific lams (the generic for mode or style mentioned above), yet Surin nevertheless manages to pack in loads of rich details, like blaring brass and garagey organ licks. As great as the arrangements are, though, nothing can compete with Kunchai’s remarkable voice. She deftly navigates corkscrewing melodies, morphing from smooth lines to consonant-rich, rhythmically nuanced phrases, all of it further distinguished by a remarkable vibrato that makes it sound like she’s dicing up a single vowel into staccato beats. The album’s irresistible title song, with horn charts that remind me of West African pop music from the same era, is today’s 12 O’Clock Track.