Friday, May 27, 2011

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: An Outbreak of Dengue Fever

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 27, 2011

Whenever a band is based on an unusual concept — say, re-creating and building upon a suppressed style of music from several decades ago from a faraway land — there are inherent dangers.

First of all, said band might become too stuffy and scholarly, drifting away from being a creator to being a curator. Or, such a band might get a whiff of success and yield to the temptation of distancing itself from its original mission. And, of course, with any musical act there’s always the danger that what sounded fresh and innovative a couple of years ago will eventually sound dated and stale.

I’m happy to report that my favorite psychedelic Californian/Cambodian band Dengue Fever has avoided all those pitfalls. Dengue’s latest album, Cannibal Courtship, is a glorious blast from start to finish.

Short primer for newcomers: Dengue Fever came about after a trip to Cambodia in the ’90s by keyboardist Ethan Holtzman, who became an enthusiast of the crazy, psychedelic music that flourished there in the pre-Pol Pot years. Returning to his native California with cassette tapes of this music, Holtzman and his guitarist brother Zac got a band together to play it. But the sound wasn’t complete until they found Cambodia-born singer Chhom Nimol, who had a gig at a joint called the Dragon House in the Little Phnom Penh area of Long Beach.

The title song, which kicks off the album, starts as a slow soul groove. But the music slowly builds up in volume and intensity and, by the time Nimol is shouting the refrain, “Be my sacrificial lamb!” listeners know this album is going to a wild ride.

The next tune, “Cement Slippers,” is a funny dialogue song between Nimol and Zac Holtzman that reminds me of “Tiger Phone Card” on Dengue’s previous studio effort, Venus on Earth. “My girlfriend loves everything at the beach/Except the water, the sand, and the sun,” Holtzman sings. Nimol responds, “My boyfriend loves everything about me except the endless hours of therapy.”

Dengue in Santa Fe 2007
But the best part of this song is a maniacal, it, sax solo by horn man David Ralicke. Nimol reverts to her native tongue, Khmer, in the following song, the slow-moving, exotic “Uku.” Ethan Holtzman’s Farfisa organ shines on this one.

Actually, I wish the song “2012 (Bury Our Heads)” was sung in Khmer or some other language I don’t understand. I think the group is actually making fun of the New Age-y reading of ancient Maya prophecies that next year will bring the end of the world. After the recent “rapture” idiocy, I’m getting tired of this doomsday crap. But the song is a decent little rocker, so not all is lost.

A better topical tune is “Family Business,” which is about a girl caught up in some weapon-merchant business — it sounds like a Nicolas Cage movie in the making. The instrumental “Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius” reminds me of Henry Mancini’s score for the early ’60s John Wayne flick Hatari. I can’t listen to it without images of rhinos chasing jeeps haunting my brain.

Cannibal Courtship will probably induce lots of crazy visions for listeners.

Also recommended:

*Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia. Had Mick, Keith, and the boys ever released a compilation called “The Rolling Stones Presents Chicago Blues Favorites,” it would have been to them what this collection is to Dengue Fever. The music here represents the basic DNA of the band.

Electric Cambodia, released last year, contains 14 Cambodian rockers from the late ’60s and early ’70s. The sound is lo-fi, because the original recordings — as well as the original artists — were destroyed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled that country in the mid-to-late ’70s. The only surviving recordings were on old cassette tapes kept and hidden by fans.

But you have to love the basic sound of the electric organ playing off the fuzzy guitars (sometimes straying off into the same cosmic territory Carlos Santana pioneered) and the singers who seamlessly bring together Cambodian folk melodies, Asian pop, and American rock ’n’ soul of the ’60s.

All but two of the selections here are by the three biggest stars of Cambodian rock — female singers Pan Ron and Ros Serey Sothea and a man named Sinn Sisamouth, who was such a super-stud, he recorded duets with both Ron and Sothea. “Jasmine Girl,” a Sisamouth/Ron duet, is a soft romantic tune that starts off sounding almost like an Asian bossa nova.

A couple of these songs were covered by Dengue Fever on its first album in 2003. There’s the slinky, sexy “Flowers in the Pond” by Sothea (Dengue did a slower version, just calling it “Flowers,” on its own album). And even better is “Shave Your Beard,” another Sothea song.

“Snaeha” has a melody you might recognize. Sung by Ron, it’s a Khmer version of the old Cher hit “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”

This album is available from the usual online places. And if you like these old songs, let me also recommend the Cambodian Rocks series, currently available on the Khmer Rocks label. At least three of the four volumes are available from Amazon at reasonable prices.


Enjoy "Cement Slippers"

Cement Slippers (official) from DENGUE FEVER on Vimeo.

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