Critical Voices: Dengue Fever

January 17, 2008

L.A.-based sextet Dengue Fever has the kind of back-story that’ll crinkle more than a few cynical noses: five white dudes from the United States travelled to Cambodia, fell in love with that country’s ‘60s psych-rock output, enlisted Cambodian pop singer Ch’hom Nimol and released a self-titled album comprised almost entirely of Cambodian pop-rock covers. Luckily, over the course of seven years the band has melded its diverse influences into a strikingly distinct Cambodian-pop-meets-Ethiopian-jazz aesthetic that in no way hints at the white-boy cultural misappropriation its back-story suggests. Venus on Earth, Dengue Fever’s second album of nearly all original tunes and third overall, offers a pleasant if homogeneous reiteration of the band’s unique template.

Venus kicks off strong with the deep, rolling funk of “Seeing Hands” and the smouldering “Clipped Wings,” in which Ethan Holtzman’s watery organ notes complement his brother Zac’s reverberating guitar lines at every turn, as David Ralicke (who has also played in Beck’s band) squeezes out sinuous sax croons redolent of Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke. Nimol’s high-pitched chirps in her native tongue of Khmer are hard to stomach at first but eventually prove an integral part of the band’s sense of melody and rhythm. Venus stumbles, however, when Nimol shares vocal duties with Zac Holtzman, whose mundane English phrasing pales next to Nimol’s more expressive delivery. Even worse, Nimol’s apparently newfound confidence in English strips songs like “Sober Driver” and “Tiger Phone Card” of their mystery and reveals their painfully trite subject matter.

Despite a handful of solid tunes, nothing on Venus matches the unrelenting cool of “Sni Bong” or “Lake Dolores” from 2005’s Escape from Dragon House, still the band’s finest album. First-time listeners should pick up that record, as well the Mulatu Astatke compilation Ethiopiques Vol. 4, to hear this type of music played to its true potential.

Dengue Fever; Venus on Earth; M80 Music

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