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Posted January 28, 2008 by Mike Mineo in Features
 
 

Curing the Dengue Fever

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In an advanced and highly communicative age like ours where music of all geographical origins can be easily obtained, it would be unconventional to call any form of music a lost art. After all, throughout the centuries, music has had the ability to be documented in a variety of forms. Even before audio recording, artists have been able to record their works on paper through the use of theoretical notation. Without it, all the Beethovens and Mozarts of the world would be vastly under-appreciated. However, with some historians holding the belief that the legality of music in a country holds little importance, there may be some relevant events that your school’s required history books may have neglected to tell you. The events of Pol Pot’s short-lived but highly effecting political party, the Khmer Rouge, have been documented in-depth, yet an important event that occurred on April 17th, 1975, often goes overlooked. After the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia), they banned and removed all artists (including musicians) from the city. Legendary songwriters such as Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth were lost; the only reasons their names may not ring a bell is because of the Khmer Rouge’s order of banishment. Otherwise, both would likely have been acknowledged as prolific influences. The same can be said for numerous other Cambodian musicians, most artists whose works have unfortunately been lost due to the regime’s overpowering incentives.

It takes a lot of courage for an artist of American descent to revive a type of foreign music lost in the lingering effects of a sensitive political event. For brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman though, they found Cambodian pop music to be an art too rousing to be forgotten. After a visit to the country in the late ’90s, both of them fell in love with the music they were exposed to there. Expecting something entirely exotic, they were treated to a sound that actually remained rooted in several influences of Western descent. Cambodian pop music, as it turned out, was just as accessible as its American counterpart, with sentiments of surf-rock, alternative folk, and psychedelia being prevalent. With that in mind, the Holtzman brothers returned to Los Angeles with a plan to form a band that would echo their love for Cambodian music. Searching Long Beach’s Cambodian music scene for musicians with similar intentions, they found Nimol Chhom, a vocalist who was practically aready a superstar in Cambodia. Her soaring vocals allowed her to play for the king and queen before joining the Holtzman brothers. After enlisting bassist Senon Williams (also in Radar Bros), brass player David Ralicke, and drummer Paul Smith, it marked the beginning of Dengue Fever.

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There are several reasons why I consider Dengue Fever to be one of the most eclectic and original sounding acts on the indie scene today. The most glaring explanation arguably comes in the vocals of Chhom; they are constantly invigorating in being that, even when the lyrical content is strictly in Khmer, her ability to express authentic human emotion is a talent that is universally recognizable. Her vocals can simultaneously give off the impression of being both frailly intimate and ardently empowering. The other reason is the form of exotically stimulating instrumentation that the six-piece conveys, with various forms of guitars, brass, keys, and rhythm being impeccable representations of quality Cambodian music. Being that Cambodians were listening to American radio stations during the Vietnam war, the influences spanning from surf music and psychedelic rock to Motown and soul are not surprising. All are represented well on the group’s third full-length album, Venus on Earth. Released this past Tuesday, all 11 tracks represent the group’s most successful release yet, even ahead of the extremely impressive Escape from Dragon House. We can only hope that, if all historical works represent similarly great quality , the album can help ignite a Cambodian music revival.

In relevance to their past two full-length releases, Venus on Earth is a continuation of Dengue Fever’s enjoyable blend of surf-rock, alternative folk, and psychedelia. The only aspect that appears slightly differing in comparison is Chhom’s increased use of English, though it neither detracts or increases the amount of enjoyment or exotic flair the band conveys. The suavely seductive “Woman in the Shoes” shows off Chhom’s use of English and Khmer, with English being exclusively used during the chorus. “Close to me, holding hands at the bottom of sea,” she sings over a swanky bass line and several sets of brass, “Close to me, I hold you tight until you can’t breathe.” Though it is not the most ambitious or instrumentally complex song on the album, “Woman in the Shoes” is easily my favorite simply due to its enthralling melodic capacity and slick use of brass and guitar. Chhom’s vocals don’t hurt either, as she gives one of the best vocal performances I have heard all year on Venus on Earth. “Tiger Phone Card” is one of the band’s more accessible tracks, sung entirely in English by Chhom and Zac Holtzman as a duet. In simplest terms, it makes its mark as a worldly love song with superbly executed guitar solos and vocal harmonies being wildly impressive. “Seeing Hands” and “Clipped Wings” are more demonstrative of the band’s instrumental prowesses, though it appears to trade overall infectiousness for structural ambitiousness. It provides for superb variation on Venus on Earth, an album that is most certainly one of the most impressive of the year so far.

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Dengue Fever – Woman in the Shoes

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Dengue Fever – Tiger Phone Card

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Dengue Fever – Clipped Wings

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Mike Mineo

 
I'm the founder/editor of Obscure Sound. I used to write for PopMatters and Stylus Magazine. Send your music to [email protected].