Pros: Great working of the 60s Cambodian pop sound, some great lyrics
Cons: Don't understand all lyrics
The Bottom Line: Superb contemporary take on the 60s psychedelia/cambodian pop sound
There seems to me something rather incongruous (not a little irritating) about middle class white kids playing ”world music”. I’m thinking Damon Albarn popping over to Mali now and again to lay down some tracks with Amadou and Mariam getting back home in time to meet Alex James for tea and homemade cheese. Ditto the sickeningly talented Zach Condon (aka Beirut) who sits in his bedroom creating the evocative sounds from all corners of the globe. (But not the overwhelmingly irritating Matisyahu, whose annoying infectious pop music was described as Tom Robinson as being “for all your Hassidic reggae needs” – thus far I’d been unaware I had any although this guy certainly satisfied them).
But I digress. You see, while it’s OK for BBC legend (and sometime wife-worrier) Andy Kershaw to discover these fascinating bands of one-legged Tibetan nose-flautists, we want the real thing, not Giles and Miranda sitting in mummy’s gazebo churning out the sounds of downtown Jakarta from a well-tended garden in the Home Counties. Dengue Fever are one exception; a band that are so cool and pull off the Cambodian 1960s pop-psychedelia thing so well I can forgive them their rather mundane Los Angeles roots. Like their name, Dengue Fever are highly infectious and the catchy numbers of their third album “Venus on Earth” , while not breaking any new ground for the band, see them go from strength to strength with a collection of competently played and composed pop songs.
A friend introduced me to Cambodian pop music through a compilation CD; I’d no idea there’d been such a thriving pop scene in the country at the time and to find out that the genre has such a strong following today. Then I came across Dengue Fever, at first in a brief review of their imaginatively titled first album “Dengue Fever” which I never got round to listening to, and then a few years later on BBCs “Later with Jools Holland”. I was hooked.
The songs on this album are a mixture of cover versions of classic1960s Cambodian pop and original numbers but the overall style is a really pleasing blend of east meets west but done in a very immediate way that gets the very essence of Cambodian pop without pretention or artifice. Furthermore, because half of the lyrics are in English you don’t get that exclusivity that puts some people off “world music”.
Lead singer Chhom Nimol, a Cambodian immigrant to the USA (and whose parents were singers prior to the Khmer Rouge cleansing campaign) has a very distinctive, haunting voice that you’ll either love or hate. Naturally I love it; not only does it capture the sound of Cambodian pop but it sits beautifully in harmony on the tracks where she shares the vocals with guitarist Zac Holtzman. Take “Tiger Phone Card” in which the two duet; the song tells the story of two lovers, he is in the States, she in Phnom Penh. The song sounds very 1960s especially with the guitar solo but it’s a very modern account of a distance relationship and anyone who has tried to make one work will identify with the lyrics.
“Woman in the Shoes” is utter 60s psychedelia, a mix of English and Cambodian lyrics that get inside your head and conjure up some quite surreal images. “Close to me, holding hands at the bottom of the sea/Close to me, I hold you tight until you can’t breath” – we get the picture – she clearly likes him!
The stand out track for me is “Sober Driver”, a song that describes a doomed relationship between an obviously high maintainence young woman and her boyfriend who is reluctantly at her beck and call. “You called me up because and I’m sober and you wanted me to drive/I’m getting tired of being treated like just a free ride/I finally figured out that you’re just a thorn in my side” sings Holtzman to Nimol’s “My friends have all gone, I don’t know how I got here, it’s too far to walk, I’m in four inch heels”. A great sax solo conjures up images of late night angst; will he go and pick her up from that party or is he finally going to put his foot down?
“Monsoons of Perfume” is another late night track with atmospheric keyboards and sultry vocals from Nimol, so it’s in Cambodian but that doesn’t take anything away form this slightly jazz-tinged number. We meet up with that brilliant sax sound again in “Integatron” this time with in combination with some classic 60s keyboards and Nimol’s almost imploring wailing vocals. What is she going on about? No idea but somehow it doesn’t matter, the overall sound blows me away every time I hear this track.
Penultimate number “Tooth and Nail” is another sad love song that reminded me of Bacharach and David so understated it is in its simplicity. The haunting flute in the background behinds Nimol’s honeyed vocals is gorgeous.
Listening to this album you’ll detect little nods to loads of musical genres but the blend works so well that you never get the feeling that they’re all showing off like listening to Beirut can sometimes make you feel. What is really brilliant is how Dengue Fever have taken the 1960s Cambodian pop sound and moved it on without creating just a pale imitation. The final track “Mr Orange” is a great example of this; the 60s keyboards – more precisely farfisa organ - and jangly guitars are there but the track doesn’t sound dated at all; it just sounds very fresh and very now. They manage to throw in the odd country tinge, a little Balkan folk, even some African rhythms, but it all works effortlessly.
The word “fusion” is one that generally has me looking for the nearest exit. Fusion is not something I like in a restaurant, nor in a band. That you have to say something is a fusion tells me that it doesn’t work; if you have to explain it then it has failed miserably and you’re making an excuse for it.
I prefer to think of this album, and what Dengue Fever do in general, not as a fusion but as a contemporary take on a classic sound. Who’ll like it? Fans of good pop songs (not necessarily all fans of “pop music” but that’s a whole new kettle of fish), fans of classic 60s psychedelia and anyone looking for something new in (dare I say it) "world music ” (that other term that has me groaning).
If you need one more reason to buy this album, let it be this. The cover shows a young lady riding pillion on a moped driven by a rabbi wearing a tracksuit and carrying a guitar. Go figure!
1. Seeing Hands 2. Clipped Wings 3. Tiger Phone Card 4. Woman In The Shoes 5. Sober Driver 6. Monsoon Of Perfume 7. Integration 8. Oceans Of Venus 9. Laugh Track 10. Tooth And Nail 11. Mr. Orange 12. One Thousand Tears Of A Tarantula (live radio session)BONUS TRACK
Great Music to Play While: Romancing
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
Fiona Thompson (FionaT)
I live in the UK but have a second home in Slovenia where I hope soon to move to on a permanent basis. I love to travel and I write for a number of sites about my travel experiences. … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
At last, Dengue Fever has made an album that quite nearly matches their incredible live performances. The group began at least as a tribute to the playful yet heavy psychedelic pop scene that flourished in Cambodia before Pol Pot came to power and silenced countless suspected dissidents in that country's infamous killing fields in the mid-1970s. Like the Cambodian pop music that so enamored them, Dengue Fever began by revitalizing strong elements of '60s surf and garage rock in their sound. Over time, they've expanded their influences to Ethiopian funk and modern dance-rock. Once a multi-culti California band with a Cambodian-born singer paying homage to the past, Dengue Fever now plays original, swirling, psychedelic pop. With Western audiences ever more open to hybrid sounds, it will be a huge surprise ifVenus on Earthdoesn't allow Dengue Fever to quit their day jobs for good, especially after the film about their trip to Cambodia,Sleepwalking through the Mekong, hits the festival circuit in 2008.--Mike McGonigal