Spaced Out in Wonderland Review
Spaced Out in Wonderland is the latest offering from Khmer rock revival group the Cambodian Space Project. With their previous four albums all following a similar tone as far as musical composition is concerned, it is a breath of fresh air to see them branch out and evolve as artists with this album of musical discovery and personal revelation.
The album kicks off with a rocker, “Down from the Mountain,” which is literally pleading with fans and family members to enjoy their new sound and still accept what they are doing. Moving onward, the second track, “5 Lady Cows” is a strange title that fits with the very psychedelic feel of the song. Throughout, the layered guitar effects are very reminiscent of riffs from George Harrison’s “Art of Dying.” This song is the first in a small story arc of sorts on the album, that of Channthy Kak—lead singer— and her life prior to Cambodian Space Project; this song is about her falling in love and learning to persevere until she can accomplish her dream to become a singer.
The next three songs, “Havana Inn, Cambodia,” “Proud Mary,” and “Sugar Coated Mango” share a similar theme of love; one concerns a dreamlike state in which two people, Julian Poulson—guitarist and backup vocalist—and Channthy, meet and fall in love; “Proud Mary” is the opposite in a way as it reinforces this idea of standing up for yourself and what you believe in and not falling for any man that confesses their love. This trilogy of romance concludes with “Sugar Coated Mango,” a classic Khmer love song Julian’s vocals are given a fitting range that makes his singing sound more natural and pleasant.
The subsequent track, “Never Fall Down” is more of a repetition of the idea from “5 Lady Cows” with determination and not giving up, although this studio version leaves something to be desired. However, the song is still very melodic and blends a beach rock vibe into the band’s style nicely with a bed of echoing guitars and bass flooding the floor below Channthy’s voice as it reaches for the moon.
The following two tracks off of the album are extremely personal, “Summer Wine” follows up with Paul Kelly as a guest vocalist—his wobbly higher register similar to Ambrose Kenny Smith of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard—and concerns itself with alcoholism and the struggle not to drink too much wine when one is dealing with extreme sadness. “Blackbird” is a song that relies more heavily on percussion as a hypnotic tool so that once the subject of racism does come up, the listener is completely focused. In older Cambodian communities, darker skin usually would indicate someone who is poor or less of a person than others, and, as evidenced here, Channthy was victim to this during her childhood. Once the song comes to a climax, it mirrors “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles in some ways by using manipulated instruments layered over one another to come to an orgasmic climax.
Closing the album, “Superstar” adds nothing new to the table as far as instrumentation goes, but makes up for this with its lyrical content, that of separation anxiety when someone you love is not able to see you and instead has to travel often, leaving you in a state of worry and panic over whether they will remain loyal in your absence. The closing song on the album, “The Passenger,” is a song that truly embodies the album title as it makes use of another hypnotic drum beat and instrumental loops to create an aural sea beneath the vocal harmonies that are themselves drenched in echo and reverb. This song has a very obvious “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles vibe, as its vocal content matches the dreamlike state of the instrumentals perfectly. The song deals with the idea of someone with their head up in the clouds and afraid to return to reality, comparing the experience to traveling through space.
The lyrical themes that run throughout Spaced Out in Wonderland lend a sense of maturity that is also reflected in the instrumentation present on the album. It feels very spaced out and yet also very tight and functional as a whole. The Cambodian Space Project offer up a very enticing piece of Cambodian psych rock with a funk edge this time around, proving that they are able to adapt and experiment with new ideas without having to compromise the band’s overall style. Credit here must go to Phom Nhanh Sereyroth for her help translating these lyrics into English.