Congratulations loyal PopWreck(oning) readers, today you’ll not only get to read a review, you also get a history lesson on the birth of a musical genre. Before Dengue Fever‘s press kit came to me in the mail, I had never heard of Cambodian pop-rock. Nor has Wikipedia. However, after digging a little deeper, I stumbled across a wonderfully informative website called, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten – Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.” It turns out that during the time period of the Vietnam War, a new genre of music was being formed due in part to the exposure Westerners and Vietnamese had to one another. Cambodian pop-rock was formed by combining the American “surf rock sound of Dick Dale and the Beach Boys, and the British pop movement of The Beatles, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, with traditional music of Cambodian culture, referred to as either Ramvong (slower dance music), or rambach (folk-style music). Fun stuff right?
That said, Dengue Fever proudly calls this genre it’s home. Forming in Los Angeles in 2001, founding members Zac and Ethan Holzman realized their compassion for Cambodian pop-rock following a trip to the country. The brothers then began filling void in their groups line-up, beginning with David Ralicke on the sax. Ralicke, who had previously played with Beck, was followed by drummer Paul Smith and bassist Senon Williams. The band’s final piece, singer Chhom Nimol, who was discovered performing at a night club in the Little Phnom Penh or Little Cambodia area of Long Beach, Ca., would be the signature touch this band needed to complete the authentic Cambodian sound they were aiming for. Actually hailing from Cambodia, Nimol had regularly performed for the countries King and Queen. While that may not be the Beatles rooftop concert, it’s not exactly a strike against her resume either. I mean, I bet Sid Vicious never played for the Queen.
After securing a line-up and completing two “critically acclaimed” albums, we’re brought to the present for Dengue Fever, with the release of they’re third album, Venus on Earth. On the album, recorded mostly on analog tape, the band seems to focus more on the actual construction of songwriting than they have in the past. With less clutter and more craft, Nimol’s vocals seem to remain fresh and crisp, uncovered by noise. They also manage to balance on the tightrope act that is showcasing both American and Cambodian cultures equally and efficiently. Drummer Paul Smith points out, “We made a conscious decision to simplify the sound. There’s a lot of space in the mix, more swing in the playing. The arrangements are less jammy; they’re finely constructed, with plenty of surf music and spaghetti western twang.” Songwriter Zac Holtzman adds, ” We wanted a jazzy, European feel, with enough space to increase the impact of Nimol’s vocals. It’s emotionally deeper and moodier, in tradition of the French chansons, but still retain its Cambodian soul.”
Emotion is the driving force behind this album. Chhom’s vocal disposition ranges from tormented on tracks like “Seeing Hands,” forceful on “Tiger Phone Card,” and heavenly on “Monsoon of Perfume.” In much the same manner, the musical contributions to the album follow the same guidelines. Surf rock tracks may follow garage rock sounds tailing smooth jazz ballads. If one word were ever to describe Venus on Earth, that word would have to be diverse. I mean, even the language of the album remains inconsistent as Chhom fluctuates her storytelling from English to Cambodian then back again.
It’s safe to say that Dengue Fever will suffice to those indie kid whose obscurity walks hand in hand with the band who can do the same. Trust me kids, with a band this original, their sound can never be stolen.
Look for Venus on Earth on January 22nd, 2008 on M80 Records.
Download: “Sober Driver” mp3 (right click, save as…)