It's been a three year wait for a new album by Dengue Fever. The music on 2009's DVD documentary release, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, was mostly older material, leaving 2008's Venus on Earth as the last full album. The band has been developing their own unique character through a progression of releases, adding more original music and extending the retro Cambodian rock music that inspired them. Cannibal Courtship, due out April 19, features a maturing sound that's still true to their Khmer rock roots.
If you aren't already familiar with Cambodian rock, it's a cultural byproduct of the Viet Nam war. Cambodians assimilated American surf/garage/psychedelic rock and blended it into their own folk music to create an exotic, jangly mix of surf guitar with intriguing scales. Unfortunately, it was largely destroyed by Pol Pot in the mid '70s. Dengue Fever resurrected this music, adding in their own version of surf, jazz, and sense of pop. Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol's singing and personality provided the final necessary element to complete the band's sound.
Cannibal Courtship takes the familiar sonic features and throws in some R&B, funk, and ska. The ska sounds are the most striking. Listening to the sinister second wave ska grooves of Sister on the Radio or 2012 (Bury Our Heads) was a revelation that sent me digging through Dengue Fever's back catalog. I was surprised to hear these elements in earlier songs, too, like Ethanopium. The slinky, reverbed guitar riffs, the expressive bass lines, and winding organ sounds have been there all along. I love that the band turned me on to the links between surf rock and ska.
The album is full of great tracks; it's hard to just pick a few to talk about. Uku stands out, setting up a psychedelic Khmer groove that shifts into a dub style jam. The title track, Cannibal Courtship, shows off Dengue Fever's growth. The interplay between the cool repeated guitar riff and Nimol's voice is perfect. She sounds dreamy and desperate at the same time. The vibe shifts between laid back R&B and harder rock. It's a meditation, a celebration, and an arcane rite all in one.
The absolute best, though, is Durian Dowry, which sets up a snaky, psychedelic groove like a tripped out version of Pipeline by the Chantays. The noir surf rock vibe evolves through a progressive set of changes, giving the song a post-rock twist on Dengue Fever's classic sound. Senon Williams' bass playing is transcendent, weaving through the song and pulling the elements together into a forward drive.
Grab Cannibal Courtship when it comes out. Dengue Fever is a band that deserves more attention. Their exotic masala of styles piques the senses like my homebrewed fenugreek/ginger mead.
Venus on Earth
Sleepwalking Through the Mekong