Review: Dengue Fever – Cannibal Courtship (Fantasy, 2011)
This Los Angeles combo continues to make some of the most unexpected music of the decade. Formed in 2001, Dengue Fever grew out of organist Ethan Holtzman’s interest in 1960s Cambodian rock. Originally setting out to cover the obscurities he’d collected on record, the addition of Cambodian vocalist Chhom Nimol gave the band an elevated sense of authenticity and set them evolving into something more original. Nimol originally stuck to singing in her native Khmer, but here she takes the step to switch between Khmer and English as the each song demands. The music remains anchored to the mix of psych, jazz, pop, garage, exotica and Indian flavors that came together in 1960s Cambodian popular music, and the seamlessness with which it all fits together continues to amaze.
The album opens on a cool note with “Cannibal Courtship.” The guitar and electric piano initially riff quietly behind Nimol’s cooing, but a bouncy, wordless chorus ramps up the volume and tension as the vocal gains passion and the music explodes into a buzzing, electric backdrop. The group overlays deep bass lines with hard fuzz guitar, free saxophone solos, and group vocals that recall the Jefferson Airplane’s ballroom days. Nimol snakes her vocal around the guitar and bass riffs of “Uku,” with finger cymbals and a flute solo adding a period feel. The group edges into the mood of spy jazz with “Sister in the Radio” and late ’50s exotica with “Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius,” leaving the listener to wonder not just what they’re listening to, but even more beguilingly, when.