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Dengue Fever - Venus on Earth

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Artist: Dengue Fever

Album: Venus on Earth

Label: M80

Review date: Feb. 12, 2008


Dengue Fever - "Seeing Hands" (Venus on Earth)


There’s nothing worse than so-called “world music” played by over-educated, privileged white kids keen to make a post-ironic statement in an increasingly globalized world. Yes, I’m talking about Vampire Weekend, and no, I don’t particularly want to. Ditto for Matisyahu, whose name the mainstream music press has not invoked for a blessed long time. I bring up these queasy names to draw contrast with a truly superior cross-cultural act, the exciting and inventive Dengue Fever. The band has just released its third album, Venus on Earth, and, if there’s any justice in the world, they’ll receive at least a fraction of the attention foisted on the aforementioned clowns.

For those not hip to the band’s frisky and soulful East-West psych-pop, here’s a brief overview of its history. Guitarist Zac Holtzman and his organist brother Ethan struck on the idea for pre-Khmer Rouge-style rock band following Ethan’s '90s trek through Southeast Asia. By 2001, the two had pieced together a group to interpret the hybrid surf-psych-folk ditties found on such compilations as Cambodian Rocks. All they needed was a singer.

The fetching and talented Chhom Nimol fit the bill perfectly. A somewhat recent immigrant to Los Angeles, she had family ties to the original Cambodian pop-rockers. (Her parents were wedding singers, and her father performed on a soundtrack with Sinn Sisamouth, an admired singer presumed murdered during the Khmer’s cultural cleansing campaign.)

Dengue Fever’s debut featured mostly covers, played faithfully but with considerable passion and spark. The follow-up, Escape From Dragon House, was darker, perhaps owing to the fact that Nimol spent nearly a month in lock-up as a result of overzealous Homeland Security officials. But it was plainly obvious that the band was beginning to transcend its shtick, as Dragon House boasted imaginative originals with a unique emotional impact.

Which brings us to Venus on Earth, Dengue Fever’s finest effort to date. Opener “Seeing Hands” gets things going with a brusque Mid-Eastern-meets-Pacific Rim groove. The mix is perfect, with analog warmth and instrumental clarity. Nimol sounds more confident than ever, as her vibrant melodies (delivered here in her native tongue) twist like vines around a glorious sonic stupa.

Subsequent track “Clipped Wings” is a moody number with a subtle bass anchor and phantom organ swells. Zac Holtzman provides delicate tremolo arpeggios, and saxophonist David Ralicke makes great use of the minor-key framework to deliver snaky counter-melodies.

There are a handful of English-language cuts on the album, too. “Tiger Phone Card” is a duet between Zac Holtzman and Nimol. Painting a picture of a continental lovers’ divide, the song possesses a fetching blend of earnest emotion and knowing coyness. “I’m thirty thousand feet high / Flying through the dead of night / I took an Ambien, and you came drifting through my dreams,” Holtzman sings before being brought back to earth by Nimol’s searing riposte.

Pan-global music played with this level of imagination and respect deserves ears. The musicians clearly share a musical rapport, and, in many ways, they’re doing a service to the culture from which their material takes its inspiration. The fusion of psych-rock and traditional Cambodian music that briefly flourished near the end of the Vietnam War has all but vanished from the region. It’s an important part of the country’s history, and it shouldn’t be forgotten.

Dengue Fever are keeping the sound alive, and doing so with a dignity to match the music’s spirit and flair. That’s more than I can say for the culture vultures perched at the top of today’s nearly barren indie-rock tree. Venus on Earth proves that world-pop fusion needn’t be a pastiche of watered-down musical tropes, but rather something vital and soul affirming — a fever to embrace.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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