"A unique and surprisingly danceable group that combines a beautiful Khmer-language vocalist from Cambodia and a quintet of seasoned locals with a knack for mixing Southeast Asian pop, Vietnam-war-era lounge music, klezmer, ska, surf rock, and Ethiopian jazz." -- SPIN psychedelic. They are world music. They are anything but mainstream. There is virtually no other band in the world playing "Khmer Rock," the style of 1960s Cambodian rock derived from Armed Forces Radio in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Sophomore album Venus On Earth features eleven original songs that expand on the band's sound but will please hardcore fans of both the group and the genre. There is no other band like Dengue Fever, which garners fans in everyone from indie kids to well-heeled world music consumers.
Review by Jeff Tamarkin
Three albums in the novelty has worn off, but Dengue Fever has smartly chosen to keep evolving. While that means their unquestionably unique offering no longer startles, it's no less riveting -- Venus on Earth is at once the band's most accessible and most varied release. A recap: when first heard from in 2003 on their self-titled debut, Dengue Fever was like no other band, a bunch of L.A. hipsters fronted by a Cambodian-born woman, Chhom Nimol, who paid homage to that Asian nation's pre-Pol Pot cheesy psychedelic-cum-lounge-surf-garage pop sound of the '60s/early '70s, music obscure enough that only a tiny handful of Americans could honestly claim to have known the first thing about it -- certainly, the source material spun outside of the orbit of the so-called core world music audience. By the second album, 2005's Escape from Dragon House, Dengue Fever had tossed in a few more disparate elements, and with Nimol's high-range vocals riding atop this internationalist admixture and a basic alt-rock sensibility as a guiding force (minus the faux alt-rock attitude), Dengue Fever attracted an audience and garnered critical praise. For Venus on Earth, the mainstream beckons, or comes as close to beckoning as it's ever going to for a band as non-mainstream as Dengue Fever. Nimol's vocals are as beguiling as ever, Ethan Holtzman's Farfisa organ still swirls, Zac Holtzman's guitars still chime and chunk, and Paul Dreux Smith's drums clang happily along. With horns provided by David Ralicke and bass from Senon Gaius Williams, Dengue Fever has softened some of the rougher edges, injected some serious soul, and added more swing to their thing. "Oceans of Venus" could be an outtake from the first B-52's album, "Clipped Wings" a lost Blondie tune, and "Woman in the Shoes" is just one of the most cuddly pop songs in ages. The groovelicious Nimol-Zac Holtzman duet "Tiger Phone Card," a tale of a long distance Phnom Penh-NYC romance, is the pop smash Yoko Ono might have had in an alternate universe. Drenched in reverb, soaked in sweat, marinated in some phantom historical moment yet tethered to the now, Dengue Fever is more innovative and resourceful than 99-percent of the bands that receive 99 times the publicity.
Venus on Earth
The task of presenting Dengue Fever-- an L.A.-area garage band with a Cambodian female singer-- would be a cakewalk for even the clumsiest marketers. Their novelty is clear, present, and safe; their assortment of 1960s minutiae-- from strange Cambodian translations of U.S. and UK psych-rock to spy movie soundtracks to surf-- is charmingly jumbled and affable. Every element shiny and signifying, straightforward and appealing.
And yet their style creates a little dissonance in me. Celebrating Cambodian garage rock-- a music whose practitioners were systematically executed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s-- is an odd thing to do without historicizing it, especially when the history deserves so much sober attention. But my frustrations with them aren't conceptual, they're practical. Vocalist Chhom Nimol has an elevatory, radiant voice that would overshadow pretty much any band she might be in. In the case of Dengue Fever, that's a special blessing. Even when their songs pass muster, the performances feel ineffectual, which makes long stretches of Venus on Earth drag semi-miserably. Even the styles they so dutifully ape had an imagination about what to do with the aural character of their guitars, whether through distortion, other effects, or a particular production style. Dengue Fever's textures are straight out of the box, as if what they thought what they're doing between the bars is novel enough. Sometimes it is. Usually, it's not.
While Chhom used to sing almost exclusively in Khmer, almost half of Venus on Earth is in English. There's such a thing as subpar lyrics that don't distract from the gestalt of a band's sound, but Dengue Fever don't find the balance. Instead, narratives about the strains of cross-continental love ("Tiger Phone Card") or the distinctly Southern Californian pain of having to pick up your drunk girlfriend from parties across town ("Sober Driver") tend to act more as a compounding element for than a distraction from the band's distinctly okay music. Gone are the few dazzling mutts that skulked through 2005's Escape from Dragon House (particularly "Sui Bong" and "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula"); here are 11 well-forged set pieces that don't really add up to great songs.
I feel anal-retentive and self-loathing saying that I want to like Dengue Fever, but it's true: I appreciate that they're making indie rock music informed by a foreign stylistic context, I appreciate the mix of non-Western music with Western, and I love Chhom's voice. But there are better "foreign" bands, and musicians making more interesting mixes at the moment-- M.I.A., Tinariwen, and even some of Ricardo Villalobos' recent singles sound like they could be from more than one different place, and I mean that as a compliment. While Dengue Fever's intentions are good, their expressions verge on vacuous. Venus on Earth is the kind of benign aural tourism that always made me a little bored and suspicious of Air and even, occasionally, of Stereolab. But what those bands might've lacked in sincerity (if that's what you could call it), they covered for with diligence of craft. I'm generally up for pledging to lightness of mind and the revelations of exoticism, but if Venus on Earth is their idea of, well, Venus on Earth, I'll stick with Earth as is.
- Mike Powell, March 21, 2008