(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, February 23, 2009

CD Review - Dengue Fever, Venus on Earth

There is a particular joy in finding a new band and having it open up a world. It's no great surprise that the band Dengue Fever never quite showed up on my radar. Even though they started to get a little bit of national attention last year, they weren't any kind of household name. So, having a friend turn me on to them has turned out to be a very happy accident (thanks, Tommy).

Brothers Zac and Ethan Holztman put this band together after traveling to Cambodia. They managed to assemble a very interesting group of musicians, centered around an ex-patriot Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, who was fairly well known back home. Prior to this album, I wasn't familiar with the retro Cambodian pop music that they're expanding on but I've come to learn that it came about as a result of exposure to Western rock music during the Viet Nam war merging together with more traditional Cambodian sounds. By 1975, though, much of this music was destroyed by the Pol Pot regime.

That's enough of a history lesson to give this album some context. The sound is very much an amalgam of psychedelic surf guitar, 60's era cocktail jazz, and exotic Asian melodies. All of this comes together into a real moody musical mix. The unique factor is Nimol's voice, which has such a cool sound. She sings in an ethereal soprano, with a haunting vulnerability that grabs your ear even if you don't understand the Khmer lyrics. This whole album is full of gems.

My favorite track is the first one, Seeing Hands, which is a Pink Floyd-like raga groove: Indian mixed with psychedelia with Nimol's chanting over the top. The reverby guitar and bass drive this on, building repetition into a truly intense trip. Washes of keyboard and a brief baritone sax solo are just icing. My biggest regret is that it's not longer - this could easily expand into a Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun extended jam.

From there, we drift through Bond movie spy music, mid 60's surf sounds, and more Indian/Asian scales. The guitars are drenched in reverb, the farfisa organ wheezes, it's really a wonderful sound. The songs lyrics drift between Khmer and English, with a couple of duets. Tiger Phone Card reminds me a bit of Boy Genius (When We're Famous from Don't Fear the Reverb), especially in Zac's vocals. Lyrically, it deals with a long distance relationship: "...you only call me when you're drunk..."

Actually, a number of the songs had elements that reminded me of other classic songs of the era, like Laugh Track referencing Telstar by the Tornados or Tooth and Nail having a bit of Bowie's Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud. Monsoon of Perfume doesn't reach back quite as far when it reminds you of Hotel California. Despite these minor similarities, the album has a consistently original feel. If you like the garage band surf sound and moody introspective vocals, you should check this out. Dengue Fever is my new favorite band for a while.

If I were going to pick the drinks based on location, I'd have to say some kind of warm light lager on a hot night but that doesn't really fit. The hot night is good but the right beverage is the Belgian Pauwel Kwak, which is a complex, spicy beer.

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