Cambodian music has recovered from the dark ages depicted in the harrowing documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, when pop musicians were kidnapped and killed by Pol Pot and his forces. Still, the current-day Cambodian bands have their own struggles. The musicians who collaborated on a raw, energetic tribute to Iggy Pop almost saw their efforts disappear. But after some delay, Angkor Pop! has arrived, as exciting as you think it would be—and in some cases, it may improve upon the master.

The Kampot Playboys open the set with a cover of “I’m Bored” that, like many of the songs covered from Iggy’s solo career, is rawer than the original. The story goes that a family of five monkeys seemed to give their animal benediction proceedings that augmented rock ‘n’ roll electricity with traditional Cambodian instruments. Doch Chkae (which translates as “Same Dog”) makes so many middle-class American punks covering “I Wanna Be Your Dog” look like spoiled brats; these kids—including a 12-year old bassist—grew up on a trash dump.

It’s surprising how readily the Iggy Pop repertoire is adapted to this faraway land—and to different subgenres. Professor Kinski, featuring MC Lisha & Miss Saravan, converts the power trio base of “T. V. Eye” into a dense media hell of electronica with drum machines, distorted vocal samples and sick synth lines. If the Stooges’ version was a primal scream of sexual paranoia, this version, while lacking the Asheton brothers’ propulsive swagger, pretty much sounds like a nightmare of the surveillance society.

More fun is “No Fun,” by punk-pop group the Schkoots, which is the rare track here that may be smoother than the original. On the other hand, if you always thought “Candy” a little slick, Angkor Pop! closes on an inspired live version from the Phnom Penh venue Oscar’s Bar, where a number of the album’s sessions were recorded.

The cadence of Cambodian singers may be wildly different from James Osterberg’s, but in some cases it’s more expressive than his primitive snarl. With the Cambodian Space Project, who created a track-by-track homage to Lust for Life, singer Kak Channthy transforms “The Passenger” from a moody, Antonioni-inspired folk-rocker into a haunting cry. Sadly, Channthy didn’t live to see the album come out. She was killed in March 2018 when the rickshaw she was travelling in was hit by a car. She was only 38.

The nation’s outlaw frontier put the project in danger, as sound engineer and Cambodian Space Project guitarist Jason Shaw, taking a nap in his Phnom Penh hotel, woke up to find the top floor room had been burglarized by thieves who made off with his laptop, recording equipment and, worst of all, a hard drive that held the album’s priceless recording sessions. That was in 2017! The recordings were eventually retrieved after a reward was offered, no questions asked. Not every track on Angkor Pop! lives up to the promise of such troubled provenance. But there’s enough rock ‘n’ roll danger here to make you wish you could hear the country’s take on other proto-punks.

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